The story of Earth Day is a story of collaboration and cooperation. Fifty years ago on April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans participated in “teach-ins,”
marches, letter writing campaigns and more to bring awareness to the problems of smog, polluted water, pesticide poisoning, and other environmental concerns. Activities were sponsored by local colleges, schools, and community groups, and while many of those involved were high school and college students, older citizens turned out as well from farmers to scientists, teachers to politicians from both sides of the aisle.
Behind the grassroots activities, though, was a bi-partisan steering committee sponsored by Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, and Congressman Paul McCloskey, a Republican from California. Nelson had been working for conservation efforts in his home state for over a decade but was inspired by two headline grabbing stories in 1969 to tap into growing environmental concern, the enthusiasm of youthful demonstrators, and the scientific community to affect political change. The two headline stories that motivated him were the Santa Barbara oil spill and the fire on the Cuyahoga River.
The combination of support by Nelson and McCloskey’s in Washington, and the local groups was a successful strategy. Earth Day activities empowered citizens to engage in actions in their communities, making it personal and relevant. Here in Cleveland there were “teach-ins” at Cleveland State University and nearby Baldwin Wallace College aimed at informing people of environmental issues. There were clean-ups and tree plantings at Edgewater Beach, a Vote Against Pollution rally on Public Square attended by Mayor Carl Stokes, an anti-pollution march in the Flats.
All of the above activities, along with thousands more around the country led to a concerted effort by Congress to pass legislation that could make real impact. The Clean Air Act passed in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972. They adopted a proposal by President Nixon to create a plan to consolidate environmental responsibilities of the federal government under one agency, a new Environmental Protection Agency, which was adopted in December of 1970. But Earth Day activities continue to this day, encouraging everyday people to speak out and act to preserve and protect this planet we all love.