Earth Day, which in many respects was the beginning of the “green” movement, turns 40 years old today.
Originally a plan for holding environmental teach-ins across the country in the spring of 1970, Earth Day has blossomed into an annual day, April 22, devoted to focusing public attention on the Earth and environmental issues.
“I think it’s a positive thing. I think every day should be Earth Day,” said Judith Enck, the longtime Capital Region citizen advocate and government environmental advisor who is now regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Earth Day continues to be marked every year in high schools and on college campuses, and with many community events. It draws attention to the issues of limiting human impact on the environment, the types of concerns that the environmental movement has brought to the forefront in the past four decades.
“I think it created a heightened sense of responsibility with the public for the environment, and it’s a day that notes that. Collectively, I think it has a lot of social value and it’s a reminder that we’re really just guests on the Earth,” said George Hodgson, Saratoga County’s environmental management director.
Hodgson, a Saratoga Springs native, was a senior studying wildlife science at Cornell University in the spring of 1970 when the first Earth Day was being organized.
“I do remember being at a rally there,” Hodgson said this week. “It was a gala affair. There were a lot of young people out to celebrate this new event.”
Hodgson has subsequently devoted the last 36 years to Saratoga County environmental issues. He spent Wednesday helping stock trout in local streams, in hopes that successful fishing will help connect today’s children to the outdoors and protecting it.
The idea of devoting a single day to the Earth and protecting its resources was first promoted in the fall of 1969 by U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., who was a noted advocate for environmental causes. The idea caught on, and by many estimates about 20 million people were somehow involved in the original national Earth Day in 1970.
Nelson, who died in 2005, would later recall, “The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air — and they did so with spectacular exuberance.”
The Earth Day movement picked up on some of the student energy already aroused because of protests against the Vietnam War and in favor of civil rights, and directed that energy at protesting against what were then a myriad of environmental problems: factories and power plants that polluted the air and water, raw sewage being discharged into rivers, dumps that leaked, common use of pesticides that harmed wildlife and the loss of wilderness areas to development.
The worst examples of pollution have been cleaned up because of the movement symbolized by Earth Day, and air and water are now cleaner, said state Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis.
“It was a citizen-led movement that established a national agenda,” said Grannis, who helped organize the first Earth Day events in New York City.
The movement influenced John Weber, now the director of the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. In 1970, He was in the eighth grade in Durham, N.H. — home of the University of New Hampshire — and he remembers the student energy.
“It was opposition to the Vietnam War, but Earth Day was all wrapped up in that,” he said.
“People paid attention to it. I even got an Earth Day decal to iron onto my shirt,” Weber said.
By the next year, his family had moved to Corvallis, Ore., where Weber got involved in the high school ecology club and remembers hearing futurist Buckminster Fuller talk about the inefficiency of car motors running at stop lights.
“Earth Day spurred me to be involved as a young person, and I continue to be very interested and concerned,” said Weber, adding that his environmental concerns are sometimes reflected in the exhibits at the Tang Museum.
At Union College in Schenectady, the student Protect Your Environment Club held a “Litter March” on the first Earth Day, then co-sponsored a speech by Charles C. Johnson, one of the Nixon administration’s top environmental officials, according to the student newspaper Concordiensis.
Kathleen Gansfuss, Niskayuna’s parks and recreation coordinator, was a freshman at Drew University in Madison, N.J., and got involved in the first Earth Day.
“I went to a committee meeting and was put in charge of a [Zero Population Growth] table,” she recalled. “A girlfriend and I were in charge of the booth. We got literature from a national organization. We manned the booth, and just kind of talked about living more modestly.
“It was a big event on campus. A lot of people came,” she said.
Gansfuss said a heightened environmental consciousness has had an enduring influence on her life. She’s active in town of Niskayuna and Schenectady County recycling efforts, and is a member of the Environmental Clearinghouse of Schenectady.
“I think it’s made me a different person than I might have been. It changed all of us and made us more aware,” Gansfuss said.
Enck was too young to remember the first Earth Day, but she became active in environmental causes while a student at The College of Saint Rose, and later joined the New York Public Interest Research Group.
On Tuesday, she received an award in Albany for having founded Earth Day Lobby Day at the state Capitol 20 years ago, in 1990, when she was a NYPIRG advocate.
“My goal was to connect the public support for environmental causes to accomplishing an agenda for change,” Enck said.
Despite all that has been accomplished since 1970 to reduce pollution and protect the environment, Enck said a huge amount remains, particularly with regard to countering global warming.
Earth Day is popular with politicians looking to show off their environmental credentials.
Gov. David Paterson said in an Earth Day Lobby Day address in Albany on Tuesday, “Forty years ago, we celebrated the first ever Earth Day, and this year I challenge all New Yorkers to do their part in making our state and our nation healthier and cleaner for a more prosperous future.”
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