New reasons to take part in Earth Day

The first Earth Day in Philadelphia, on April 23, 1970.

On Saturday, a massive worldwide demonstration and celebration returns: Earth Day, the day set aside to mark environmental progress.

And because so much attention will be focused on the large-scale, unprecedented March for Science in Washington, with its thousands of suddenly politicized scientists, the media will miss two facets of the larger story.

First, Earth Day has become deeply entrenched worldwide. More than 1 billion people will participate in activities across 195 countries, what the Earth Day Network calls “the largest civic observance in the world.” And, I will add, in history.

While many cities like Philadelphia will be hosting homegrown versions of the March for Science, schools, towns, nature centers, parks, environmental groups of all sizes and political stripes, and more will be sponsoring Earth Day events, and, among many things, millions of trees will be planted on that one day alone.

So don’t be surprised if your child tells you what she did for Earth Day in school this week.

Second, Earth Day returns to its roots this year.

Inaugurated in 1970 as a national political teach-in for American colleges, Earth Day unexpectedly exploded that year. A Philadelphia coalition formed, its nucleus comprised of Penn students, and famously presented not only a massive demonstration on Belmont Plateau, but a whole week of events citywide. Many national luminaries — Paul Ehrlich, author of the best-seller The Population Bomb, and Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, then whispered as the front-runner for 1972’s presidential campaign — appeared here that year.

Ecology was rapidly rising into our political awareness then: litter was choking rivers, Lake Erie was declared biologically dead, a massive oil spill spewed millions of gallons of crude onto Santa Barbara’s shore, DDT was thinning the eggshells of then-endangered eagles and falcons, and lead-filled smog from then-dirty cars was damaging our lungs and causing permanent IQ loss. “Pollution” enters the lexicon in 1970.

Ultimately, 20 million Americans joined in, many marching (1 million in New York alone) while wearing gas masks to protest smog. They buried polluting cars in mock funerals, threw dead fish into the lobbies of corporate polluters, staged sit-ins, and much more. As an eighth-grader bitten hard by Earth Day’s environmental bug, I organized a cleanup of my town’s park — and knew I had found my life’s work.

The outpouring of public support created an irresistible parade that President Richard Nixon knew he wanted to lead in hopes of winning the youth vote in ’72. So the Environmental Protection Agency was formed just after Earth Day, and the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, environmental impact statements, and more were passed by that era’s more-functional Congress.

Fast forward 20 years, and 1990’s Earth Day was the first to go global, as 200 million people from 141 countries engaged in thousands of events. Our nation’s many curbside recycling programs grew out of 1990, as did recycled paper products, dolphin-safe tuna, and so much more.

But the events were decidedly more festive that year. Earth Day returned to Fairmount Park, bringing 120,000 Philadelphians out for a sunrise service, family activities, Earthball games, a children’s stage, all anchored by a concert hosted by WYSP-FM (94.1). Earth Day still running through my veins, I joined the volunteer committee of 30 local groups planning that event and a week of activities.

Which brings us to 2017.

With the Trump team’s on-the-record antipathy to the environment in general, and climate change in specific, with its radical proposed reduction to the EPA’s budget, and with its commitment to increasing atmospheric carbon from increased fossil-fuel drilling and altering mileage standards for new cars, the electorate will be activated on this issue to levels of anger we’ve not seen since, well, 1970.

In fact, Saturday’s March for Science will likely be eclipsed in size only one week later, when the People’s Climate Movement stages a massive rally in Washington, giving us two large-scale environment-related events back to back.

Dismiss Earth Day if you will — and many still do — but it’s here to stay. By 2020, the event’s 50th anniversary, Earth Day will be massive, eclipsing 1970s and 1990s gold standards. And with a presidential campaign that year, and three more years of our climate rapidly changing, it takes no crystal ball to assert that the environment will finally crack the top of the list for what issues 2020 candidates will be addressing.

Earth Day will get bigger and more political, as the window to address climate change starts closing — which it is doing now — and the issue rises in immediacy. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, consider joining the billion people participating in Earth Day on Saturday. Visit www.earthday.org for an event near you. There are literally thousands.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, where he will host the center’s Naturepalooza family festival from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday.  @SCEEMike  mike@schuylkillcenter.org