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A Small Blue Marble – Celebrating Earth Day

April 1, 2024
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Earth Day, observed annually on April 22, marks a significant moment in environmental advocacy, uniting individuals and organizations around the globe in efforts to protect the Earth. Catalyzed by growing public consciousness about environmental issues and the need for collective action and the success of the Apollo space missions, this historic event laid the groundwork for the modern environmental movement.

The origins of Earth Day are attributed to Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, who saw the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, which to this day is the third worst spill in US waters, and decided action needed to be taken. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, Nelson decided that if he could infuse the energy of anti-war protests with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, he could force environmental protection onto the national stage. Nelson announced the idea for a "national teach-in on the environment" to the media, and persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair. They recruited Denis Hayes, a young activist, to organize campus teach-ins, which evolved into the first Earth Day.

On 22 April 1970, 20 million Americans, 10% of the U.S. population at the time, took to the streets to demonstrate against the impacts of well over a century of industrial development which had left a growing legacy of serious human health impacts. Organizations 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 allies.

The first Earth Day achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from all corners of the political spectrum, and so by the end of 1970 had led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of other first-of-their-kind environmental laws, including the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act. The next few years would see Congress pass the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Earth Day went global in 1990, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries and lifting environmental issues onto the world stage. While this gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide, which included some dubious interference, it also helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. President Bill Clinton awarded Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role as Earth Day founder, the highest award the United States can bestow on a civilian.

We have come far since 1970, and advanced much, so it can be easy to look up at the night sky and feel the sort of thing people did knowing our human footprints were now on another celestial body. When those astronauts looked back at their world and saw that small blue marble, they saw humanity’s potential. Earth Day is part of that potential we should never forget.

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