Donning a gas mask, a demonstrator participates in the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. (AP)

Quick quiz:

1. Which labor organization helped fund and organize the first Earth Day celebration?

2. Who made the following statement:

“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions … It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they, more than we, will wreak the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.”

Keep reading for answers.

Rivers on fire

Today, our planet needs all the love it can get. From the increasingly severe impacts of climate change and overpopulation to rapid deforestation and mass species extinction, we’re up against a mounting series of potentially catastrophic environmental crises. But environmental regulation remains staunchly divisive in Washington. Passing environmental regulation is often considered too politically risky, and efforts to address even the most pressing challenges are consistently thwarted and the once-celebrated Environmental Protection Agency, created under a Republican administration, is now one of the most reviled agencies in Washington.

For what it’s worth, though, the environmental outlook in the late 1960s wasn’t too rosy either.

After decades of largely unregulated industrial and economic growth in the wake of World War II, the U.S. had managed to majorly muck up its air and water resources. Toxic effluent from factories frequently spilled into streams and rivers. Open spaces were used as dumping grounds. DDT and other synthetic chemicals contaminated natural habitats and water supplies. And air pollution from factories and belching cars left many industrial areas shrouded in thick blankets of smog.

Here’s a handful of the environmental catastrophes that happened within less than three years:

  • November 1966: In New York City, 168 people die of respiratory-related illnesses over a 3-day period due primarily to horrendously poor air quality.
  • March 1967: Interior Department Secretary Stewart L. Udall announces the first official list of endangered wildlife species. Among the 78 species is the Bald Eagle, America’s national bird.
  • January 1969: A blowout at an offshore oil rig near Santa Barbara spills roughly 10,000 gallons of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel and onto nearby beaches. It lasts for 10 straight days becoming (at that point), the largest oil spill in American history. Today, it only ranks third, overtaken by the 1989 Exxon Valdez and 2010 Deepwater Horizon spills).
  • June 1969: A particularly fetid industrial stretch of the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland bursts into flames (seriously) when oil-soaked debris in the water is ignited by sparks from a passing train.

A movement begins

As urban unrest and the anti-war movement ignited across the nation, environmental activism had yet to gain a strong foothold.

“If the people really understood that in the lifetime of their children, they’re going to have destroyed the quality of the air and the water all over the world and perhaps made the globe unlivable in a half century, they’d do something about it. But this is not well understood.”

That’s a quote from Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who spearheaded a national day of awareness in the aftermath of these environmental disasters, .

“If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda.”

Denis Hayes in the Earth Day campaign office (Courtesy of AP)

In late 1969, Nelson formed a bipartisan congressional steering committee and enlisted Denis Hayes, a 25-year-old Harvard Law School dropout, to coordinate the initiative. Influenced by anti-war campus activism, Hayes sought to organize environmental teach-ins throughout the country that occur simultaneously on April 22, 1970.

[Interestingly, an independent Earth Day effort had earlier been proposed by peace activist John McConnell during a 1969 UNESCO conference in San Francisco. McConnell reserved the date of March 21, 1970 — the first day of spring — a month prior to Hayes’ event.]

With a limited budget and no email or Internet access, Hayes and a small group of organizers mailed out thousands of appeals, recruiting an army of young volunteers to organize local events in communities and campuses across the country.

On November 30, 1969, the New York Times reported:

“Rising concern about the ‘environmental crisis’ is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam.”

The first Earth Day

Interviewed in the recent PBS documentary Earth Days, Hayes recalled the sentiment:

“Lord knows what we thought we were doing. It was wild and exciting and out of control and the sort of thing that lets you know you’ve really got something big happening … What we were trying to do was create a brand new public consciousness that would cause the rules of the game to change.”

In the end, an estimated 20 million people  participated in that first Earth Day, a name coined by advertising guru Julian Koenig (father of Sarah Koenig of Serial podcast fame).

It marked the single largest demonstration in U.S. history. Helped along by its catchy name, which .

[Read the NY Times article from April 22, 1970]

“It was a huge high adrenaline effort that in the end genuinely changed things,” Hayes said. “Before (that), there were people that opposed freeways, people that opposed clear-cutting, or people worried about pesticides, (but) they didn’t think of themselves as having anything in common. After Earth Day they were all part of an environmental movement.”

Hayes’ assertions were affirmed by several national polls showing a rapid rise in the public’s concern about air and water resources. In the Gallup Opinion Index, the percentage of respondents who considered air and water pollution a top national problem rose from 17 percent in 1969 to 53 percent by 1970 .

On Earth Day the following year, an independent group launched an anti-litter public service announcement, known as the “Crying Indian” that featured a white actor in a headdress, rowing a birch bark canoe, and shedding after seeing garbage strewn everywhere. Despite the ad’s culturally questionable premise, it proved enormously popular and is still considered one of the most successful public service announcements in history.

Unexpected allegiances

That brings us back to the first question of the quiz. The group most supportive of the first Earth Day organizing effort — financially and otherwise — was none other than the United Auto Workers.

A labor union not generally thought of for championing environmental causes, the UAW donated funds for the event and turned out volunteers across the country.

UAW President Walter Reuther pledged his union’s full support for Earth Day and for subsequent air quality legislation that the auto industry staunchly opposed.

“What good is a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighborhood is burning down,” he said. “What good is another week’s vacation if the lake you used to go to is polluted and you can’t swim in it and the kids can’t play in it?”

Sensing apolitical shift, General Motors’ president Edward Cole soon thereafter promised “pollution free” cars by 1980. (That didn’t pan out so well.)

Nixon and the golden era of environmental regulation

Remember the mystery quote?

That was said by President Richard Nixon during his 1970 State of the Union address.

Yes, that Nixon, the conservative Republican most commonly remembered for prolonging America’s involvement in Vietnam and resigning in disgrace over the Watergate scandal.

But Nixon also oversaw the most sweeping environmental regulations in the America’s history.

Even before the first Earth Day, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, which among other things, required environmental impact statements for major new building projects and developments. Nixon signed it into law on January 1, 1970.

Environmentalism had never been one of Nixon’s major political priorities, but his administration — like the UAW — recognized the shifting political tide, as public outcry and media attention to environmental issues increased.

Within months, Nixon approved the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Later that year, he signed an extension of the Clean Air Act, requiring the newly formed EPA to create and enforce air regulations, that among other things, led to the installation of catalytic converters on all cars sold in the U.S.

By the end of 1972, Nixon signed the Clean Water Act, Pesticide Control Act (which banned DDT) and Marine Mammal Protection Act. A year later, he also signed the Endangered Species Act and the Safe Water Drinking Act.

Most of these bills were approved with bipartisan support in Congress, in some instances nearly unanimously.

In a televised speech in 1972, Nixon said:

“We are taking these actions not in some distant future, but now, because we know that it is now or never.”

Environmental conditions in the United States began to slowly improve. Which is not to say there wasn’t strong political opposition and major lingering problems, But for a time — stretching through the Ford and Carter administrations —  the pursuit of environmentalism maintained a strong bipartisan support. In the last year of his presidency, Carter even installed solar panels on the roof of White House to promote renewable energy initiatives.

Green honeymoon ends

The economic slowdown in the late 1970s swept in a tide of political change. In 1981, a year into his first term as president, Ronald Reagan appointed two aggressive defenders of industry to head the EPA and the Department of the Interior.  As part of the “Reagan Revolution,” the Administration moved rapidly to slash federal budgets, cutting the EPA’s funding by nearly half. Environmental enforcement was weakened considerably, as large swaths of public land were opened up for mining, drilling, grazing and other private uses. In a famous symbolic act, the solar panels on the White House roof were dismantled during his second term.

To be fair, a number of significant environmental policies were advanced during Reagan’s Administration, including the Superfund program to clean up hazardous waste sites, creation of wilderness areas, and the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of substances responsible for its depletion.

But the anti-regulatory sentiment established during Reagan’s presidency took root. Efforts to strengthen the nation’s environmental protection laws grew increasingly partisan, a trend that continues today. The stream of regulatory measures approved by Nixon four decades ago would have scant chance of passing today’s Congress.

The benefit of tangible problems

Organizers of the first Earth Day had a key advantage: they were trying to tackle visible, tangible problems that impacted people’s daily lives, incontrovertible evidence of pollution’s ill-effects. Rivers and lakes were too polluted for kids to swim in; parks were strewn with trash; people were getting sick from pollution in the air. The evidence was incontrovertible, and it made it a whole lot easier to draw clear connections between quality of life and the urgent need for strong environmental protections.

In contrast, many of today’s major environmental threats, like climate change, while perhaps even more catastrophic in nature, are also more abstract; it’s far more challenging to convey the sense of urgency necessary to mobilize the masses and pressure lawmakers to act. The United States, one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, refused to sign-on to the Kyoto Protocol, a 2005 international treaty approved by 180 nations requiring rapid cuts in emissions. Congress’ last attempt at climate change legislation, in 2010, failed. And in the current political climate, there is little expectation of any new action in the near future..

Which begs an ominous question:

What degree of disaster will be strong enough to incite a new era of environmental change?

  • Skip Conrad

    What about the connection between Lenin’s birthday and earth day. This was the people cleaned their homes in the Soviet Union. It shares many of the same earthday themes.

  • Ron Butler

    “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support… the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution… by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half…”

    Life Magazine, January 1970

  • Joyce Clemons

    “If I were reincarnated I would wish to be returned to earth as a killer virus to lower human population levels.”

    ― H.R.H. Prince Philip

  • Joyce Clemons

    U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg….

    “Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”

  • Joyce Clemons

    Dave Foreman, Earth First Co-Founder….

    “My three main goals would be to reduce human population to about 100 million worldwide, destroy the industrial infrastructure and see wilderness, with it’s full complement of species, returning throughout the world.”

  • Joyce Clemons

    Princeton philosopher Peter Singer….

    “So why don’t we make ourselves the last generation on earth? If we would all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices would be required — we could party our way into extinction!”

  • Order_of_the_Coitus

    Note: Denis Hayes was a law school dropout who accomplished something great.

    Nelson formed a bipartisan congressional steering committee and enlisted Denis Hayes, a 25-year-old Harvard Law School dropout, to coordinate the undertaking.

    Law school is a scam!!!!! DO NOT go unless $200,000+ in non-dischargeable student loan debt, no job, and living in your parents’ basement is your idea of fun. It’s a scam set up to make law administrators and professors wealthy off your federal government loans.

  • Jay

    Interesting-no mention of the Global Cooling crisis that was anticipated in late 60’s an dearly 70’s that was to bring on another Ice Age.


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email:; Twitter: @KQEDlowdown

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