I was almost fourteen years old on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day. I spent the day picking up trash at my junior high school, along with other young people.
Today, as we face the most significant health and environmental challenges of all time, it’s critical that we take stock of the problems and opportunities they bring.
My father, the late Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, came up with the idea of Earth Day. He said its purpose was to “get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy.”
Twenty million people responded to his call to action that day. In doing so, they demonstrated the power of individual action to change the course of history and help build a brighter future.
That first Earth Day ended up sparking a global movement that was successful beyond my father’s wildest dreams. It united people across political lines to take concrete steps toward a healthier planet, including passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Now, as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of that first Earth Day, the planet is in the throes of a sweeping pandemic that requires an unprecedented level of global commitment and cooperation. It is a moment that could have a profound impact on humankind’s response to the existential threat posed by climate change.
The disruption brought by the coronavirus is as great but much more sudden than that of climate change. Perhaps we will, in the spirit of Earth Day, learn that we are able to make the collective sacrifices required to combat a common threat.
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the modern environmental movement was energized. Yet when it comes to my father’s original vision of an inclusive, bipartisan environmental movement rooted in social justice, we still have work to do. Today, as we face the most significant health and environmental challenges of all time, it’s critical that we take stock of the problems and opportunities they bring.
“Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty,” my father said on Earth Day 1970 during his speech in Denver. “The objective is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all human beings and all other living creatures.”
His message was that ecology is a big science, not a narrow one. He believed we all have the right to clean air and clean water, and to a bright future of economic and environmental well-being. And he believed in the power of everyday Americans to make a difference.
In recent years, the environmental community and the general public have begun to see our challenge through this lens. Groups like the Sunrise Movement have framed the issue through a much-needed social justice viewpoint and helped give birth to a new movement that views the environment, the economy, and a socially just world as inextricably linked.
What gives me hope? The power of the individual to make a difference. I reflect on Rosa Parks’s single word of defiance: “No.” Or Greta Thunberg’s simple lonely act of protest in front of the Swedish parliament.
Surely, they could have never dreamed that these simple acts of principle and conscience would change the course of history, just as my father could not have imagined that Earth Day would advance the modern environmental movement in the manner that it did.
What matters, what we desperately need, is a conversation about how we can move forward, with the social will and political capital necessary to build a brighter future. υ