First Earth Day in U.S. had feel of '60s, says historian





It was part protest, part celebration, and an estimated 20 million Americans took part.

On the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, millions of people across the U.S. went to large public rallies, listened to political speeches, took part in teach-ins, went to concerts and educational fairs, and helped to clean up their communities. Air and water pollution, nuclear testing and loss of wilderness were major concerns.

Some university students in New York City donned gas masks and smelled flowers to show not only their love of nature but also their fear of impending ecological collapse. Richard Nixon was U.S. president. The '60s were over, but the environmental movement was just finding its voice.

"It was a beautiful spring day in most of the United States, and it had a very festive quality to it," says Finis Dunaway, associate professor of history at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. Dunaway, born in the U.S., is writing a book on the history of environmentalism.
Finis Dunaway, a Trent University professor, is writing a book on the history of the environmental movement.Finis Dunaway, a Trent University professor, is writing a book on the history of the environmental movement. (Finis Dunaway)

"Partly due to its celebratory quality and universal appeal, it was something that the media gave a lot of attention to and celebrated it as a day that might bring the nation together."

Earth Day was presented then, through media images, as a "non-threatening form of politics," but despite its mainstream appeal, it was far more than simply white middle class people picking up litter, Dunaway says.

And 40 years later, he says it still has the potential to encourage individual people to take small steps to protect the environment in their daily lives.

Dunaway says Earth Day also has, over the years, gained enormous corporate support. Unfortunately, he says, it has in the process marginalized important environment issues, such as lead poisoning in inner U.S. cities. And with its focus on individual action, it puts no pressure on governments and corporations to change their ways.


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