Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Earth Day at 40
distributed 4/16/10 - ©2010

Earth Day, 1970, fills me with awe. On April 22 that year, 20 million people across the United States engaged in a diverse array of educational events and political action -- and that massive endeavor was accomplished without email, websites or desktop publishing. Wow!

That day of teach-ins and action 40 years ago often is described as the birth of the modern environmental movement. What was launched that day is given credit for the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Those actions through the US government have made a profound difference in environmental protection and pollution control.

In 2010 -- four decades after that first day of action -- Earth Day is still observed in many communities. Schools, churches and cities hold events that educate and activate. It is the annual occasion to remind ourselves of the many ways that we can address environmental issues.

In some communities, Earth Day continues as a large, lively and challenging event. In Portland, Oregon, for example, there will be a city-wide "Celebration of Localization", on April 24. In many other places, the date is "observed" on a much less vibrant, creative or provocative level.

On its 40th anniversary, Earth Day is an important expression of the environmental cause. In today's world, through, I don't look to April 22 as the focus of the modern environmental movement. The original spirit of Earth Day is more accurately and vividly expressed in other ways.

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The time was right for the birth of a movement in 1970.

Environmental degradation was up-close and personal. Unacceptable pollution was pervasive. Factories and power plants operated without pollution controls. Raw sewage was dumped into rivers and lakes. Where I grew up, in Omaha, Nebraska, meat packing operations washed their waste directly into the Missouri River -- and large "grease balls" floated downstream. Millions of people had intensely personal experiences of dirty air and tainted water.

Two dramatic and widely-reported events in 1969 helped set the stage for the first Earth Day. A massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, fouled beaches and killed wildlife. And the Cuyahoga River caught fire as it oozed through Cleveland, Ohio. Those two events came to represent the increasingly obvious and dangerous scope of pollution.

Other factors from the previous decade shaped a culture that cared about the environment. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962, documented the widespread damage caused by insecticides and herbicides. The Wilderness Act of 1964, the Sierra Club's series of books with photos of endangered places of remarkable beauty, and Lady Bird Johnson's campaign against billboards along highways each built a commitment to preserving and enhancing landscapes. The dramatic "Earthrise" photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts, showed a tiny and fragile Earth, and helped trigger a change of consciousness.

In 1970, social change movements were seen as powerful and effective. The civil rights efforts of the 1960s had achieved great legislative victories, and had changed the national conversation about race and justice. The growing protests against the Viet Nam war were engaging activists in new strategies. Organizing people for collective action was not a surprising idea.

So it was that, in April, 1970, activists and concerned citizens met with their friends and neighbors in countless schools and communities. They taught about the dangers of pollution, and they organized for political change. The movement that was born that day was decidedly activist, directing demands for action at the companies and cities that were polluting, and calling for strong new legislation.

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In 2010, I don't see that activist, transformative passion in much of Earth Day.

Many Earth Day events do community education about practices that are now thoroughly mainstream, such as recycling and energy conservation. Those lessons are good and important, but they're not an activist strategy for broad social change. Sometimes, the environmental context of Earth Day events is hard to discern. I have seen community events that center around a corporate-sponsored "fun-run" -- which does little to educate, let along mobilize for change. Our consumer society is not challenged by the suggestion that buying a topical t-shirt is a good way to support the Earth Day movement.

In recent history, I have seen the spirit of the first Earth Day expressed most clearly and powerfully in last October's international day of climate action. Coordinated by, we once again saw a strong grassroots movement engaging in creative and focused action. The need for institutional change and government policy took center stage. Urgency in the face of a vivid environmental threat called people into acts of witness and advocacy. Local folk reached out to their neighbors to educate and recruit for continuing action. The 350 movement is continuing, with a focus on a global day of "work parties" on October 10 (10/10/10). That form of action seems to me to be much more in line with the Earth Day spirit of 1970.

I stand in awe of the amazing organizing and profound accomplishments of the first Earth Day in 1970. I do rejoice in the progress that has been made in cleaning up some of the worst pollution, and starting our society on a path toward new energy sources.

I profoundly hope that we can rekindle the transformational spirit of 1970 as we deal with the larger and more complicated environmental issues of our time. Climate change and resource depletion are more difficult challenges than the blatant pollution that was identified 40 years ago. We need an enlivened and insistent new movement which looks calls for dramatic institutional change and strong international policies.

Let us work to build and nurture that new and dynamic movement where ever we can -- through Earth Day events, through the 350 movement, and in transformational religious witness. Let us go beyond the basics, and mobilize our communities for real change.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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