How the First Earth Day Was Borne From 1960s Counterculture


During the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of young Americans rejected the stable and comfortable middle-class life that their parents had built in the years following World War II, motivated by a spirit of rebellion that would have a lasting impact on the nation.

But long hair and beards for men, blue jeans with narrow breeches and flower crowns for women, and the widespread use of psychotropic drugs were only the most visible and easiest signs to reject. this 60s hippie counterculture.

Much more transformative were the radical social and political movements that many of its adherents embraced, including the civil rights movement, the movement to oppose the Vietnam War and – in the late 1960s and early 1970s – the environmental movement.

WATCH: How the Earth was made on Vault HISTORY.

Growing environmental awareness

Oil spill in santa barbara, 1969

Images of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California fueled outrage over environmental issues.

Vernon Merritt / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Rachel Carson’s hit book Silent Spring, published in 1962, presented to many Americans the devastating effects of the large-scale use of pesticides, in particular DDT. Over the 1960s, more and more people became aware of other environmental threats, such as automobile emissions, oil spills and industrial waste.

In 1967, the federal government adopted the first Clean Air Act, the first federal emission standards and the first list of endangered species (including the bald eagle, the American national symbol). These laws were just the beginning, but they did not go far enough to solve the serious environmental problems facing the nation.

In January 1969, the Union Oil well in Santa Barbara, California, spilled more than 200,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean in 11 days. In June, oil and chemicals floating on the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio burned in the flames. Images of these disasters, disseminated across the country, have contributed to growing outrage over the state of the environment, particularly among young radicals.

Drawing inspiration from the anti-war movement

Earth day, 1970

This sign was hung behind an activist’s bike during the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

Denver Post / Getty Images

Despite this growing awareness, environmental activists had not yet become a real movement in the late 1960s, as civil rights and anti-war activists had done. This lack of momentum has long frustrated Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic senator and former governor of Wisconsin (1959-1963), one of Congress’s most passionate environmentalists. During his years in the Senate, Nelson also supported civil rights legislation and voted against allocating funds for the Vietnam War.

In August 1969, Nelson traveled to California, where he spoke at a conference on water and visited the scene of the Santa Barbara oil spill. During this trip, he was struck by an article read in Battlements magazine on the anti-war “teachings” held on university campuses in the mid-1960s. Although the teachings were abandoned as an anti-war tactic, Nelson now saw their potential to energize people – especially young people – by educating on the need to protect the environment.

On September 20, 1969, speaking at the annual Washington Environmental Council Symposium in Seattle, Nelson announced that he was planning a national environmental course for the following spring. “I am convinced that the same concern that the young people of this nation had for changing the priorities of this nation on the Vietnam War and on civil rights can be demonstrated for the problem of the environment”, he said.

Popular action and bipartisan support

Earth day learning

Preparations for an Earth Day learning in Denver, Colorado.

Denver Post / Getty Images

To carry out his plan, Nelson reached across the aisle to Congress, recruiting Republican MP Pete McCloskey from California to serve as co-chair of the steering committee behind the event. Despite his otherwise conservative views, McCloskey was a committed environmentalist who also opposed the Vietnam War.

In December 1969, Nelson hired Denis Hayes, the 25-year-old former president of the student body at Stanford University, as national coordinator of Environmental Education, as Earth Day was originally known. On a tight budget, Hayes recruited a small team of volunteers, including many students, to come to Washington, D.C. and coordinate Earth Day events in various regions of the country.

Thanks in large part to these committed young field activists, the first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970. In New York City, 250,000 people flooded Fifth Avenue after Mayor John Lindsay agreed to block the traffic for two hours between 14th and 59th streets to Central Park. In Miami, supporters of Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war presidential candidate in 1968, staged a parody of the Orange Bowl parade called “Dead Orange Parade”. As Adam Rome says in his book Earth Engineering Day, one of the floats in the parade featured the Statue of Liberty wearing a gas mask, standing on a garbage pedestal.

Sustainable impact of Earth Day

Although these urban events were the most popular in the press, the real impact of Earth Day would come from the more than 12,000 events scattered across the country, in which about 20 million Americans participated. Many were held in high schools and colleges, and they presented more than 35,000 speakers, from scientists to folk singers to members of Congress, who had suspended work for the day.

Earth Day success helped boost long-delayed environmental action in Washington. Barely eight months later, Congress authorized the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the 1970s would see the adoption of a multitude of environmental bills, including the Clean Air Act of 1970 , the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act. from 1973.

At the same time, colleges across the country have developed environmental studies programs to harness the youthful energy wave for the future. Environmentalism may have started as a counter-cultural force, but Earth Day made a move.

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