As folks gather in Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties this Saturday to observe Earth Day — planting trees, restoring habitat, collecting plastic trash, celebrating recycling — it’s worth casting an eye back over the 53-year history of this unusual holiday. A viable future for humankind hangs in the balance.
The hands-on affirmation of Earth Day activities with neighbors builds community — an unalloyed good thing — but big questions shadow the day’s good works: Has popular engagement in the environmental cause over these last 50-plus years, exemplified by Earth Day, shifted America’s or the world’s trajectory? Can environmental actions knit the broken threads of civic life that have put our democracy at risk? Have we chosen our battles well?
Behind Earth Day’s array of local actions lies a landscape of environmental policies and institutions. Behind that landscape spreads a backdrop of global trends that bound the human prospect. Does Earth Day matter to the Earth itself?
On April 22, 1970, some 20 million Americans filled streets, parks, college campuses and capitol malls across the country in a day of environmental action Wikipedia calls “the largest single-day protest in human history.” Energizing the nascent environmental movement, the moment marked a pivot from the cultural tumult of 1960s anti-war protests and youth rebellion. Here was a chance to build. In an active decade that followed the first Earth Day, America rolled up its sleeves and put the powers of government, imperfectly, to work for the environment.
Its 10th anniversary in 1980 offered Earth Day organizers a chance to showcase and celebrate 10 years of environmental accomplishments. By the 20th anniversary, born-in-the-USA Earth Day had gone decidedly global, inspiring environmental actions in 141 countries and engaging some 200 million people — 10 times the turnout of the founding event.
At 30, with a new millennium in its messaging and a focus on fighting global warming, Earth Day animated actions in 184 countries. Ten years later, more than one billion people participated in Earth Day’s 40th anniversary events worldwide, a 50-fold increase compared with its origins.
Then at 50, just weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic locked the world in a shelter-in-place moment, Earth Day went virtual, with digital calls to climate action. Never shy about superlatives, organizers called the estimated 100 million participants in 192 countries “the largest online mass mobilization in history.” In the space of two generations, Earth Day had become “the largest civic observance in the world,” according to earthday.org.
The national and global environmental policy landscape since 1970 has been more troubled terrain. The watershed moment of the first Earth Day launched a fertile decade of institution-building in the U.S. that included establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the passage of flagship environmental laws protecting water, air, and endangered species and confronting the challenge of hazardous waste. Closing a decade of real progress at home, the green-leaning Carter administration shifted official attention to emerging global challenges, from poverty to the warming atmosphere, with its Global 2000 Report to the President.
The pendulum swung hard with the election of Republican Ronald Reagan, launching years of backlash. Foxes filled federal henhouses; ideologues including Anne Gorsuch at EPA and James Watt at the Department of the Interior pulled the U.S. government back from energetic enforcement of the environmental laws passed in the preceding decade.
Meanwhile, green shoots of an international movement began to stir. A new focus on tropical forests and biodiversity created channels for activism. “Save the Rainforest!” organizations and campaigns multiplied. Alarming news of damage to Earth’s protective ozone layer prompted an international treaty with teeth, the Montreal Protocol, negotiated and adopted in record time — the first universally ratified treaty in the history of the United Nations. Environmental concern had globalized.
Climate change exploded onto the stage. In June 1988, NASA scientist Jim Hansen told members of Congress in a sweltering hearing room that global warming was here, now. Unprecedented wildfires burned in iconic Yellowstone National Park. The UN set up a new body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to coordinate scientific research on the changing atmosphere and advise governments. Borders could no longer contain environmental concern or response.
A new round of institution-building followed, this time at world scale. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro produced both the Framework Convention on Climate Change (precursor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the eventual Paris Agreement) and the Convention on Biological Diversity, opening the way to new binding global treaties. Governments were back in the game.
Distractions — and surprises
Momentum proved short-lived. The terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, and the ensuing costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq left little bandwidth for efforts to advance the commitments of the prior decade, or to digest the urgent findings of climate science.
The climate simmered with surprises. In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans with Category 5 strength. There have been many hurricanes before and since, but that storm and the failed response and inequities of a troubled recovery stirred in the American public an unnerving sense of vulnerability to climate-fueled disaster. Former Vice President Al Gore, calling the situation a “planetary emergency,” reached an audience of millions with his Academy Award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Signal disappeared into noise. New social media platforms Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006) joined cable news in amplifying discord and weaponizing mis- and disinformation, including climate denial. Significant climate legislation, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, passed the House of Representatives but ran aground in an intransigent Senate. A UN climate conference in Copenhagen collapsed with no new international agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Increasingly volatile and destructive weather intensified the sense of a world spinning out of control.
Then, like a sun break in the storm, the Obama Administration joined 194 governments to negotiate a new treaty to limit average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. The Paris Agreement took effect on November 4, 2016 — one day after the election of Donald Trump.
The Trump Administration proved as chaotic as the world backdrop. The administration littered federal agencies with sworn enemies of environmental progress. Environmentalists, already playing a deeply dispiriting defense in the U.S., showed scant surprise at Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, putting the imperfect but hopeful global treaty at risk.
Then the novel coronavirus drove the world into lockdown and pushed us online. The murder of George Floyd by a police officer during an arrest in Minneapolis in late May 2020 triggered nationwide protests for Black lives and a reckoning with the U.S. history of racial injustice, inequity, police brutality and white supremacy.
Youth takes the lead
Climate justice brought the demands of frontline communities to the fore and rose to the top-line of public hunger for environmental progress. Inspired by Black Lives Matter and by the young Greta Thunberg’s “Fridays for Future” protests, youth leaders stepped up to the climate challenge with rallies, marches and organizing. The massive stress test blending pandemic and protest, abetted by mis- and disinformation propagated at the speed of light and anxieties about the future of democracy itself have left us, in the sixth decade of Earth Day, not with a “new normal” but with “no normal.”
And yet, behind this roller-coaster landscape lie deeper trends. The U.S. population grew by 121.5 million people between 1970 and 2020, and the world’s population added 4 billion, seeming to substantiate “population bomb” fears that had drawn many to the streets for the first Earth Day. But U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 23% from their 2005 peak of 6.14 billion tons, and emissions per person peaked in the U.S. in 1973. Global carbon dioxide emissions more than doubled over the 50-year span, but emissions per person increased only modestly, suggesting that decarbonization is at least underway, if not nearly fast enough. The numbers tell a story of change sufficient for Earth Day hopes.
Earth has a bottom line, the measured atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. The curve of the gas most responsible for rising temperatures has never flattened or dipped since modern measurements began in 1957. At 414 parts per million in 2020, the concentration is 90 parts per million higher than in 1970 and will soon pass a level 50% higher than preindustrial levels. The modern world has been shoveling carbon from Earth’s crust, by way of combustion and deforestation, into the atmosphere for nearly two centuries. A viable future for humankind depends on reversing that flow. The challenge remains bigger than any day, week or movement that clever Homo sapiens has yet devised.
Earth Day at age 53 is a “think globally, act locally” holiday. With the biggest concerns in mind, do the little things that matter. In Whatcom or Skagit or San Juan counties this Saturday, plant trees, pull ivy, gather household poisons for the toxics dump— and talk to neighbors.
In 1970, a poster created by cartoonist Walt Kelly to promote the first Earth Day featured the wise opossum Pogo expressing a simple sentiment: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Fifty-three years later, Pogo’s truth still rings.
— Contributed by Edward Wolf