Exploring Earth Day’s Roots

Today is Earth Day, and the 41st one at that—a celebration of Mother Earth, and one that has taken on more and more significance since it was first started, as the environmental crisis only continues to grow (with oil spills and tsunamis underlining the overall problem). As we progress towards either a resolution of the world’s many environmental ills or catastrophe for the planet and the human race, ecological awareness only continues to grow. Earth Day, begun by Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970, has been a major factor in that growing awareness. Once considered the domain of hippies and tree huggers, Earth Day is now unifying, rallying call to wake up and face the music of the ecological devastation we can no longer ignore. But that was always the idea—Senator Nelson created Earth Day from the heady atmosphere of political turmoil and protest in the late sixties, seeking to raise the type of awareness that had been created around things like civil rights and the Vietnam War and focus it on ecology—an idea far ahead of its time.

The Christian Science Monitor reports:

In the 1960s, student activists seemed more concerned with foreign conflicts such as the Vietnam War than with cleaning up the environment.

Then the largest oil spill in US history occurred off the coast of California, leaking an estimated 100,000 barrels of crude into waters near Santa Barbara in 1969 (it has since been eclipsed in size by Exxon Valdez and the BP Gulf spill). A US senator from Wisconsin visited the site and was so moved by the devastation that he proposed a “national teach-in on the environment.”

From where could he find the organizers and participants for such an event?

Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin immediately looked to the student antiwar movement. He not only modeled his first-ever Earth Day in 1970 on the Vietnam War teach-ins of the time, but he also rallied those fervent protesters to join his environmental awareness campaign and make it a nationwide happening, according to the Earth Day Network website.

What do you think—what can we learn from the history of Earth Day? And how might environmental awareness be changing, especially as we approach 2012?

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