The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the older generations owe the young 50 years after the first Earth Day

Young people, who will suffer the consequences of inaction, are leading the charge for climate action.

More than 20,000 mostly young people gathered on a hilltop at Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park on April 23, 1970, to celebrate Earth Day. (AP)

Fifty years ago on the first Earth Day, 20 million participants demanded immediate action on a pressing public health issue: environmental pollution. “A disease has infected our country,” the young leaders of the central organizing committee warned. “The weak are already dying. . . . 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.”

While the covid-19 crisis has disrupted the planned commemorations of Earth Day 1970, the pandemic also has reinforced the urgency of its core lessons of ecological sustainability, environmental justice and the power of youth-driven grass-roots activism to challenge corporate pollution and government inaction.

Covid-19 has devastated the global economy, laid bare the ecological interdependence of our natural and human worlds and disproportionately harmed our most marginalized communities, including not only the elderly but also nonwhite and poor residents of urban centers that already suffer the most from environmental pollution and other preventable public health inequalities. Young people in the United States, although at much lower risk for the disease itself, also will face damaging consequences from the collapse of the job market in a society marked by extreme economic inequality.

Public health experts have received a rare opportunity to redirect public policy because of the dire threat the coronavirus poses. But in recent years, the U.S. government has repeatedly sidelined public health solutions for the global climate crisis and other deadly social and environmental emergencies. It’s past time to embrace the agenda of the youth-based climate strike movement, which builds on 50 years of grass-roots activism for environmental justice and sustainability.

Back in 1970, elementary and high school students from a racially and economically diverse spectrum of American communities made up the largest single group of participants in the first Earth Day on April 22. Environmental Action, the small group of activists in their early 20s who coordinated the nationwide demonstration, were veterans of the political left who drew inspiration from the youth-oriented civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. The idea, however, came from Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin, who issued a call for a “National Teach-In on the Environment” in the fall of 1969. Nelson, a longtime advocate of progressive environmental policies, believed a breakthrough required the mobilization of youth in high schools and colleges, because it was “too late to convince the established leadership of the seriousness of the crisis.”

Nine recent college graduates (two-thirds were white men) formed the initial national staff of Environmental Teach-In Inc., the organization that Nelson created to coordinate Earth Day events across the nation. Led by Denis Hayes, the steering committee soon renamed their organization Environmental Action and expanded Nelson’s campus-oriented vision through a more urban focus, moving “out into the community and addressing the issues where they were really being fought.”

Environmental Action connected the ecological crisis to racial discrimination and social inequality, highlighting what we now call environmental justice. In his Earth Day speech, Nelson called on American youth to fight for “an environment without ugliness, without ghettos, without poverty, without hunger, and without war.” He denounced the destruction of Vietnam and prioritized the plight of the “polluted urban areas that are inhumane traps for millions of people.” Through its newsletter, Environmental Action publicized and championed “the black and poor communities” fighting against lead poisoning, air pollution, unsafe workplace conditions and even police violence.

Earth Day on April 22, 1970, took place across the nation and constituted by far the largest single-day political protest in American history. Environmental Action reported that 20 million people attended events in 2,000 communities, on 2,000 college campuses and at 10,000 secondary schools. Barbara Reid, Earth Day’s Midwest coordinator, remembers the organization was “riding the wave” of a bottom-up insurgency, providing resources for new and existing local movements. The mobilization succeeded because of the organizing efforts of thousands of grass-roots activists, especially women and nonwhite community leaders, as Adam Rome chronicles in “The Genius of Earth Day.”

Environmental Action viewed Earth Day as the launch of a radical challenge to industrial corporations and their government enablers. In an April 22 manifesto, Hayes denounced “corporate irresponsibility,” demanded a political system that valued “people more than profit” and proclaimed that “our country is stealing from poorer nations and from generations yet unborn.” At a rally denouncing General Electric, Reid called for “a movement to make the corporate, governmental, and educational institutions of this country responsive to the needs of the people.”

Environmental Action capitalized on Earth Day’s momentum through a confrontational strategy that included boycotts, lawsuits, electioneering and corporate investigations. Starting with the 1970 midterm elections, its “Dirty Dozen” campaigns exposed the records of anti-environmental politicians and succeeded in defeating at least 19 members of the U.S. House of Representatives during the decade. The “Filthy Five” and “Debunking Madison Avenue” projects unmasked corporate polluters and their “outrageously misleading and deceptive” advertisements promising environmental stewardship, what is now known as “greenwashing.” “Earth Tool Kit,” published in 1971, was a book-length field manual for citizen activists fighting against government and industry in their own communities.

Besides Earth Day itself, Environmental Action’s central role in fortifying the Clean Air Act of 1970 counts as its greatest historical legacy. That summer, Environmental Action took a leading role in forming the Clean Air Coalition, which included mainstream environmental groups, urban social justice organizations and the United Automobile Workers (the union also helped fund Earth Day). The coalition’s “Plan for Clean Air” combined tough federal regulations on automobiles and factories with a crucial provision allowing private-sector lawsuits to compel government enforcement. An extensive citizens’ lobbying campaign then ensured passage of the landmark environmental law.

The idealistic young activists in Environmental Action “tried to take on the whole world,” according to Peter Harnik, the editor of the group’s biweekly newsletter. They embodied the most radical, “anti-corporate fringe of the environmental movement.” Environmental Action strongly criticized the Nixon administration for its coziness with corporate polluters, attempted rollbacks of clean air mandates and outright opposition to the Clean Water Act of 1972. The group also coordinated a “Bust the Trust” campaign to demand more funding for mass transit in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973. Through investigative reports, Environmental Action revealed inner-city and nonwhite neighborhoods faced the worst air and water quality because of a “consistent discriminatory pattern against the poor.” And the organization increasingly urged U.S.-based activists to address the “global dimensions of the environmental crisis.”

Looking back from 2020, Harnik believes that the “young save-the-Earth activists” in Environmental Action “were raising voices against an America that was polluting, profligate, and wasteful at the same time it was doing terrible things on the other side of the world.”

Their work continues in today’s youth-propelled grass-roots movements that challenge the political establishment and encounter resistance from older generations that control wealth and institutions. At least 36,000 Americans die of gun violence each year, a public health emergency with obvious solutions, but the high school activists in March for Our Lives mobilize so far in vain. Around 200,000 Americans die annually from illnesses linked to air pollution, and more than 4 million people around the world, but the Trump administration denies climate science, sabotages the Paris accord and mocks the high school and college students leading the global climate strike movement and its American affiliates.

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day 1970 provides an opportunity to appreciate the centrality of principles of environmental justice, racial and economic equality, clean and renewable energy and global interdependence for today’s most visionary environmental activists. As always, mobilized youth are on the front lines, from the Global Climate Strike to the U.S. high school-based Sunrise Movement to the advocates of the Green New Deal. The Earth Day Network, co-founded by Environmental Action veteran Denis Hayes, extends into more than 180 nations and has worked closely with youth-oriented groups to promote a Global Green New Deal that will address the climate crisis and build a more sustainable world economy. While the inability to commemorate Earth Day 2020 through mass public demonstrations is among the many consequences of the covid-19 shutdown, it is now more urgent than ever to listen to their demands for a safer future and a more just world.