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Born in 1970, event has cause for celebration -- and a midlife crisis
The day's beginnings were much humbler, but not that far away. The first Earth Day was organized from an office at 2000 P St. NW that smelled like hamburger grease and teemed with flies.
"Every so often, someone would go berserk and dash from room to room" swinging a fly swatter at the swarms drawn by the oily fumes rising from the diner downstairs, said Cotton, then 23, who was the press director for the group. "Since we were budding ecologists, we had an unspoken rule against using bug spray."
He and the other young people were working on an idea from then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), who died in 2005. In August 1969, Nelson had visited a huge oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif. He wondered: Why not hold a "teach-in" -- like the campus discussions that focused on the Vietnam War -- on the environment?
Nelson hired Denis Hayes, 25, a graduate student at Harvard and a former student-body president at Stanford. The rest came from a variety of other liberal causes: a veteran of Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, an organizer of antiwar protests in Mississippi, an anti-hunger activist.
At the time, the Potomac River was choked with pollution-fueled algae blooms. Cleveland's Cuyahoga River had recently caught fire. Smog was so bad that, in 1966, a vast cloud of it was blamed for killing more than 150 people in New York City. And even the bald eagle's population had fallen below 1,000 nesting pairs in the continental United States, ravaged by the pesticide DDT.
On P Street, the group mailed out suggested Earth Day activities, called college campuses to set up events, talked to dozens of newspaper and TV reporters.
It worked: On Earth Day itself, there was a "human jam" that filled New York City's Fifth Avenue, a rally near the Washington Monument, a march against a foul-smelling sewage plant in Albuquerque. There were events at college campuses and in classrooms around the country: By one estimate, one in 10 Americans participated.
"A disease has infected our country," one ad for Earth Day said. "It has brought smog to Yosemite, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food, and left our cities in decay. Its carrier is man."
The days after
In the four years afterward, the Environmental Protection Agency was founded and Congress passed a series of landmark laws. The Clean Air Act amendments of 1970 set new limits on pollutants. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 provided new protections for vulnerable animals. And the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 set new restrictions on what could come out of taps.
Today, EPA estimates that the Clean Air Act -- amended in 1990 to crack down on acid rain -- has prevented more than 220,000 premature deaths from air pollution. Other legislation led to pollution cuts that have made both the Cuyahoga and the Potomac run cleaner.
And, with DDT banned, there are now more than 9,700 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the Lower 48.
"We won the argument that the environment needs to be protected," said Michael Brune, the modern-day executive director of the Sierra Club. "The conversation is now about at what pace do we need to reform, what are the most effective policy solutions we need to put in place, what the costs are going to be."