Earth Day and the Power of the People

By Jenevra Wetmore

“Earth Rising,” as photographed from Apollo 8, December 24, 1968. NASA photo.

This year will mark the 53rd anniversary of Earth Day, an annual holiday to celebrate the environmental movement and take action to protect our planet. Since the first Earth Day in 1970, public awareness of environmental issues has only grown. While the first Earth Day primarily focused on air and water pollution, it has evolved to encompass much more, including the fight for climate action to reduce CO2 emissions. This year’s Earth Day theme is “Invest in Our Planet.” This theme emphasizes the importance of dedicating our time, resources, and energy to solving the climate crisis.

This year’s celebration comes at a meaningful time; the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released a report warning that we may not be able to meet the landmark Paris climate agreement– to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Scientists say nations’ current commitments still leave a “substantial” gap to reaching this goal, which was set to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, such as droughts, heat waves, flooding, famine, and infectious diseases. Beyond warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, humans will not be able to adapt to these extreme conditions. The good news is that many of the needed changes are already happening, just not quickly enough or at a large enough scale. We all need to take action to push for change now, before it is too late. This Earth Day, take time to reflect on the history of the holiday and the immense social and political change it sparked. In this time of uncertainty, Earth Day is an empowering example of how protest and citizen action can empower a movement.

There isn’t once clear reason that Earth Day took off, but the Cuyahoga River Fire is a commonly-cited catalyst. The Cuyahoga River flows through Cleveland–a booming industrial area in the nineteenth and twentieth–and empties into Lake Erie. After the Civil War Cleveland became a center of industry, and the confluence of the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie made it very attractive to industrialists such as John Rockefeller. American Ship Building, Sherwin-Williams Paint Company, Republic Steel and Standard Oil all began in Cleveland, and discharged untreated industrial waste directly into the river, including oil, chemicals, and raw sewage. In the summer of 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. The river was able to catch fire because of the oil slick on the surface of the water caused by pollution.

The Cuyahoga River fire was one of the pivotal events that took place in the 1960’s, amidst a growing public awareness of environmental issues. Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, a groundbreaking book on the damage of pesticides to the environment. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill spewed 3 million gallons of oil into the ocean along California’s coast, and images of oil-covered dolphins, birds, and fish filled media. Astronauts sent back the first pictures of our planet from space, including the famous “Earthrise” photo taken by Apollo astronauts on Christmas Eve 1968. For the first time, residents of our planet were seeing it from afar, appreciating its beauty and small place in the universe. These events in the 1960’s gave rise to a growing environmental movement, leading up to April 22nd, 1970, the first Earth Day.

The idea for a day focused on the environment was proposed by Senator Gaylord Nelson, and was originally conceived of as a national teach-in day following the model of anti-war activists. Senator Nelson hired 25-year-old activist Denis Hayes as the National Coordinator, and Hayes renamed the event “Earth Day.” Earth Day took place on the seemingly random date of April 22nd because the Senator believed it would attract the largest number of college participants possible– in 1970 April 22nd fell on the last Wednesday in April, a time when students were on campus but not yet taking exams. Inaugural events took place at elementary schools, high schools, universities, and community sites where rallies and marches were held. When all was said and done, over 20 million people attended Earth Day in 1970, making it one of the largest single-day protests in history.

In July 1970, just three months after the first Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established by President Nixon. For the first time, a federal agency existed to oversee enforcement of environmental policies. That same year the Clean Air Act was enacted, followed by the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act (1972); and the Clean Water Act (1972). It is impossible to overstate the impact of these laws. Where previously industries were given free rein in the name of economic development, the federal government was now regulating industry to meet environmental goals.

It is now estimated that Earth Day is celebrated by over a billion people worldwide and in over 193 countries. The antidote to despair is action, and advocating for change at all level of government, from national to your local Select Board, is the most important thing that we can do as citizens. Nixon created the EPA in response to increasing public concern; policies and laws on climate change will change if we push for action.

What You Can Do:

  • Celebrate Earth Day with renowned farmer, food justice activist and author Leah Penniman as she presents: Black Earth Wisdom. Hosted by Sustainable Woodstock and Pentangle Arts. Register at
  • Join a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to receive fresh local produce all summer long
  • Plant something! Plant a tree, a native plant or shrub, a garden, or sow wildflower seeds (you will want to wait until June 1st to avoid frost). Learn what plants are native to our area by visiting
  • Bike, walk, or take public transportation instead of driving
  • Join an environmental organization you admire


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