What a day it was in 1970 when twenty-million of us took to the streets. Wisconsin’s U.S. Senator and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson had had enough after seeing first-hand the devastating effects of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. He was determined to do something about it. And he saw an opportunity, having witnessed the power of the civil rights and anti-war protests that had been raging, and slowly winning, for years. If he could co-opt the movement and turn its strength and resources towards saving our environment, then that was what he was going to do. And like that, the modern environmental movement was born.
We’ve come a long way. We remember the 1960s, when falling into almost any river or lake near a populated area could land you in the hospital. Every city in the country had its own special concoction of prophylactics if you fell in. Boston had the dreaded “Charles River Shot” that came at you in the form of a six-inch long needle. Spending a day in L.A. used to cause wheezing, sore throats, and red, burning eyes. You couldn’t even see the downtown from the hills surrounding the city, there was so much smog in the air. Sulfur-laced clouds filled the skies and acid rain poured down on us all, corroding everything it touched.
No more. As a result of all the hard work and persistence, people can fall in the Charles River today and not worry. California’s initiatives to force car companies to install pollution controls in their cars and remove lead from gasoline have gone a long way towards cleaning up our environment. And despite the relentless resistance from industry and short-sighted politicians that continues to this day, we can breathe again (almost).
There’s no turning back now. And you can help. The fiftieth anniversary Earth Day plans are already underway for 2020. Learn how you fit into the big picture here. And please take a moment on Saturday to tell your children the story of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.