The first Earth Day looked a lot different than it does now, at least in the US. On this day in 1970, an estimated 20 million people took to streets, campuses, and town centers in one of the largest demonstrations in our country's history. As told by Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in The New Yorker:
The first celebration of Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, was a raucously exuberant affair. In New York, Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic. People picnicked on the sidewalk; dead fish were dragged through midtown; and Governor Nelson Rockefeller rode a bicycle across Prospect Park. Students in Richmond, Virginia, handed out bags of dirt (to represent the “good earth”); demonstrators in Washington poured oil onto the sidewalk in front of the Interior Department (to protest recent oil spills); and in Bloomington, Indiana, women dressed as witches threw birth-control pills into the crowd (no one was quite sure why).Spurred on by Wisconsin's own Senator Gaylord Nelson and the man he hired to get the event coordinated, Denis Hayes, the original Earth Day exceeded even their expectations (for an informative look at the history of the modern movement, check out the documentary "Earth Days," which I had the chance to check out when it came to the Wisconsin Film Festival). Since then, awareness of the many and varied environmental issues facing our planet has only spread. It's not as though no one had been thinking or attempting to do anything about any of those problems before, but since that day in 1970, environmentalism has definitely gone mainstream.
And as with anything that does so, there have been ups and downs for the movement along the way. While we have seen an increased emphasis on creating products and services that are biodegradable, reusable, renewable, and non-toxic, plenty of companies have also used this sort of "green chic" solely as a means for cashing in, relying on what's called "greenwashing" to sell products that aren't really all that eco-friendly.
In a very cynical sense, I guess those of us serious about environmental action should be glad that corporations see this has something popular enough to even just imitate. It has also meant, at very least, that the percentage of products that actually are quite green has gone up considerably.
But there is growing discord from some corners of the movement over the commoditization of Earth Day and the green movement. And rightfully so. That anyone could see these things merely as means to a profit, and not as something to be done with care, forethought, and good intention, is fairly insulting to anyone who's worked hard for the cause.
Still, the overwhelming consensus seems to be that we need the holiday now more than ever, to continue building real awareness of the issues, to have a special day set aside to recognize the efforts of those people who work year-round to find practical, revolutionary solutions to the problems we face, and to bring new people into the fold. (Grist has a great series of interviews with various environmentalists about their perceptions of the Earth Day holiday, and it's well worth a look.)
It's good that we have a far more progressive, environmentally aware administration in the White House now. It's good that more and more people are taking the issues of climate change, pollution, overpopulation, etc. far more seriously. It's good that we're able to find ways to combine economically viable business models with green practices. And it's good that we still take this day to remind ourselves of the struggle--all that we've accomplished, and how very much work remains to be done. Because we need all the encouragement and motivation we can get to tackle such a monumental and important issue.
Happy Earth Day, all. And keep fighting the good fight--all year round.