April 22nd will mark 48 years since the first Earth Day celebration. The nearly five decades have seen the event change, the focus shift, and the participation spread all over the globe. Local events at museums and nature preserves provide great opportunities for kids to engage in activities close to the event’s roots – conservation, outdoor cleanup, or even habitat restoration. But thinking back to Earth Day’s origins can also provide perspective on how our perceptions of threats to the environment have changed. And, maybe, it can empower young people to include some activism – however small – in their plans.
Earth Day celebrations are by no means small, with some estimates approximating a billion participants around the globe. The Science March was held on Earth Day in 2017 and the Paris Agreement was opened for signatures on Earth Day the year before. But conversations with friends and family provided a glimpse into how differently a global event may trickle down to local communities. Most of the people I spoke to were glad Earth Day existed, but they weren’t able to say what month it fell in. Lots of kids will get to make Earth-themed crafts, and it is easy to imagine that social media will trigger countless little Earths being added to profile pictures. For many, observation may compare to that of national siblings’ day.
Back in 1970, Earth Day had a very different look. Inspired by an oil spill near Santa Barbara in 1969, Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed a “national teach-in on the environment.” To say that environmental concerns were not in the national consciousness at that time is a profound understatement. But Nelson looked to the enthusiasm of the student anti-war movement and envisioned mobilizing that same kind of energy for the environment. Once Earth Day was announced, groups that had previously been fighting against isolated threats – oil spills, use of pesticides, destruction of habitats – found the chance to share a voice. Over 20 million Americans participated. To provide context, that is about ten times the participation estimated for the recent March for Our Lives (>1.2 million) and at least four times as much as the Women’s March in 2017 (3-5 million).
When recalling the first Earth Day, Nelson has been quoted as saying, “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor the resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.” And that national enthusiasm had effects on people and government alike. The Environmental Protection Agency was formed in December of that year. The Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts followed. According to the EPA, “Public opinion polls indicate that a permanent change in national priorities followed Earth Day in 1970. When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment to be an important goal, a 2,500 percent increase over 1969.”
The resurgence of Earth Day in 1990 and the early 2000s have led to a global event, but often of a different tone. An image search for Earth Day today yields hands holding globes and kids planting trees. Add “1970” to the search and the images show protestors shouting in the streets and wearing gas masks. Over the years, many of the radical policies from the 1970s faded to the collective background. As decades passed, people expected their air and water to be clean. New threats have been identified – from climate change to the rollback of some of those very same policies – but an annual event is always going to have a different feel than a grassroots outpouring that seems to bubble over from the public consciousness. And large, future-based threats (like those associated with climate change) have a harder time taking root in the human mind than distinct, current ones (like an oil spill destroying a local water source). There are still many activists who passionately take to the streets each year, but nationally it is not at the scale of 1970.
But rather than just bemoaning the loss of the event’s most passionate roots, maybe use them to inspire your engagement with young people on Earth Day this year. Many of the activities at museums and parks will focus on recycled materials or local species. But some of the online suggestions for activities with kids – like mashing around blue and green slime in a sandwich bag or decorating a Styrofoam ball with blue and green glitter – take the Earth theme and end up creating waste rather than reducing it. It’s particularly ironic with this year’s goal to “end plastic pollution.” Using the powerful story of the first Earth Day’s lasting impact, maybe we can motivate kids to want to do more.
Instead, maybe start a conversation with neighbors or grandparents about the way things used to be before the current environmental policies were put in place. Maybe focus on a local environmental issue – car exhaust, food waste, individualized packaging – and support kids in a letter-writing campaign or creating a protest message for social media. Just like the first Earth Day drew much of its momentum by combining local passions into a collective cry, focusing on a tangible issue can help kids foster a concern for local environmental issues into a broader sense of stewardship over time. Just as the Earth Day Network is trying to inspire “a billion acts of green,” having a thousand small conversations about shower length or portion control might leave a more lasting impression than a thousand plastic bags filled with slime. As Earth Day approaches we can all find ways to honor its activist roots in its present form. And if you do come up with a cool craft for youngsters, maybe stick to things pulled from the recycle bin or able to return to it afterwards.