COLUMN: The myth of Earth Day

Thursday, April 22, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:52 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Forty years ago today was the first Earth Day: April 22, 1970.  This week will bring annual Earth Day activities with the festivities, speeches and editorials all mentioning it’s the 40th anniversary of the “beginning of the environmental movement.” Earth Day 1970 was a day of teach-ins across the nation, but it was not the beginning of U.S. environmental policymaking.  

The founder of Earth Day is widely acknowledged to be the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1962 to 1981 after serving as governor of Wisconsin. He said that he got the idea after seeing anti-Vietnam War “Teach-ins” in 1969 and envisioned an event “to inspire a public demonstration so big it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and force the environmental issue onto the national political agenda.”

I was a college freshman on Earth Day 1970, and even then I had trouble reconciling the few, but highly visible, people who were smashing automobiles, preaching about shutting down steel mills (where I was fortunate to get a job that summer), and arguing private property should be abolished to protect our natural resources from abuse. Having been in 4-H and Boy Scouts I enjoyed and valued our water, forests and  wilderness  resources. I still plant a garden each spring.

I met Sen. Nelson several times in 1995 and again in 1997 and 2000, and I consider him an admirable public servant who represented his state well.  Somewhere along the line, however, the role and history of Earth Day 1970 took on a life of its own and now plays a counterproductive role in environmental policymaking.

We do not need to mark the anniversary of Earth Day 1970. It’s time to move forward. Celebrating its anniversary reconfirms the myth of the original Earth Day’s impact and suggests an overly simplified view of U.S. environmental policymaking. Moreover, there is often an “anti-establishment, anti-technology” tenor held over from the first Earth Day to which many citizens object.

A widespread misconception is that Earth Day caused the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act and President Richard Nixon’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. It is now common for textbooks, academic articles and historical exhibits to repeat these inaccuracies. Professor  Jerald Schnoor, editor of "Environmental Science & Technology," in a comment titled “Earth Day Plus 40”    offers standard historical accounts that overstate the importance of Earth Day’s impact on environmental policymaking.

The single most glaring incongruent fact at odds with this historical misinterpretation is that President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act on January 1, 1970, almost four months before Earth Day 1970. Earlier, on May 29, 1969, Nixon established the cabinet-level Environmental Quality Council, and TIME magazine initiated an “Environment” section of its weekly magazine in August 1969.

Nixon devoted a great deal of his State of the Union address to environmental issues. Weeks before, on January 4, 1970, the Washington Post editorialized that the “environment is now a big issue.”       

Similarly, both Congressional environmental legislating and American public opinion were becoming more “environmentalist” well before April 22, 1970. Following the first national water (1948) and air (1955) pollution control laws, Congress established the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in 1958 whose work led to enacting  landmark legislation such as the Wilderness Act of 1964, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1965, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965, well before Earth Day 1970. That Commission should serve as a model of  informed, deliberative and anticipatory decision-making. 

Gallup polls show a tripling of the percent of the public selecting “reducing pollution of air and water” as a national problem from 17 percent in 1965 to 53 percent in 1970.  Opinion Research Corporation surveys show that the percent of the public viewing air and water pollution as “very serious or somewhat serious” increased from 28 percent to 69 percent for air pollution and 35 percent to 74 percent for water pollution over the same time period.

Getting the history of Earth Day 1970 right contributes to understanding the workings of the American political system.  While the myth of Earth Day 1970 might be an effective political mobilization tool it contributes to the equally widespread view that elected officials are out of touch with public opinion and public problems and only wake up when millions of citizens rally in the streets.

Arbor Day, May Day or the Vernal Equinox would all be suitable replacements for the anniversary of Earth Day.  The coming of spring is worth celebrating.  So is the progress the U.S. has made since World War II in reducing environmental pollution while increasing social equality, increasing the quality of life for senior citizens, increasing population mobility and increasing access to higher education. Yes, we certainly have economic, energy and sustainability challenges to face. Connecting these with April 22, 1970, is needlessly counterproductive and limiting. Let’s move on.

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU. This article is presented courtesy of The Missouri Record (, which carries Webber’s column each Tuesday.

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