Apr. 22, 2018

Uniting for Mother Earth

In the winter of 1969–1970, a group of students met at Columbia University to hear Denis Hayes talk about plans for Earth Day. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of schools and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment.

Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie was the keynote speaker on Earth Day in Philadelphia. Other notable attendees included consumer protection activist Ralph Nadar; Landscape Architect Ian McHarg; Nobel prize-winning Harvard Biochemist, George Wald; and poet, Allen Ginsberg. To me, this shows the holistic nature of the environmental movement and the need for politicians, scientists, architects, teachers and even poets to come together for solutions. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values. By the end of that year, the first Earth Day had led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

I honestly don’t recall the first Earth Day. I was only 10 yrs old and April 22nd is my little brother’s birthday. So most likely on that day, I was eating birthday cake and picking on my brother. The environmental thing I most recall from my childhood is that TV commercial with the Native American canoeing down a trash fill river with a tear in his eye.

The next big Earth Day was in 1990. As 1990 approached, a group of environmental leaders asked Denis Hayes to organize another big campaign. This time, Earth Day went global, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries and lifting environmental issues onto the world stage. Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Earth Day USA formed to continue Earth Day as a yearly event rather than occurring every decade. After 1995, The Earth Day Network took over organizing the yearly worldwide event.

Nineteen-Ninety was the second year of my science teaching career and I was working at a small community Catholic Church school. It was near Lent so my Lent lessons focused on environmental issues. My students raised money for water wells in an African community so we focused on water issues in my science classes. The next year we raised funds to buy land for the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest in Costa Rica. The Children’s Eternal Rain Forest, known by locals as Bosque Eterno de los Ninos, actually began as a school project amongst Swedish children who sought to save a piece of the rain forest. The effort exploded into a fund raising effort that expanded over 44 countries, eventually culminating into this 54,000 acre piece of protected rain and cloud forest. Today, this is the largest private reserve in the world.

In 1994, I was working in a school along refinery row on the Houston Ship Channel. When I drove into work as I approached the industrial district, my nose and throat would begin to burn. As a matter of fact, I have never worked at a school where so many children had asthma inhalers. Obviously, the air quality was not good for the people in that neighborhood. That year for Earth Day, I teamed up with the Sierra Club and my students planted 100 trees, another 100 the next year and another 100 the next year. Planting trees and trash pick-ups are common Earth Day community activities.

Now Earth Day is observed in 192 countries, and coordinated by the nonprofit Earth Day Network, chaired by the first Earth Day 1970 organizer Denis Hayes, according to whom Earth Day is now "the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year. Last year the focus was on Climate Change. As a matter of fact, the Paris Agreement was signed on Earth Day symbolically supporting the climate change theme. This year, the theme is on ending plastic pollution. So, how will you celebrate Earth Day today?