Earth Day 1970: The Beginning of a Movement
The first Earth Day, on April 22nd, 1970, was, in the parlance of the times, a “happening.” It unfurled across the country in countless iterations. In Manhattan, picnic blankets were set out on Fifth Avenue, which was shut down to traffic. In Boston, people were arrested at Logan Airport for protesting noise pollution. In Tacoma, Washington, high school students rode down a highway on horseback to protest automobiles. In San Francisco, oil was dumped into the reflecting pool at the offices of Standard Oil. And “trash-ins” were held all over, with groups cleaning up aluminum cans and other litter, an activity that would become a fixture of the decades of Earth Days to come. Politicians left, right, and center embraced the cause in the beginning — “like Mother’s Day, no man in public office could be against it,” the New York Times wrote in 1970 (though a few conservatives did point out that April 22nd was Vladimir Lenin’s birthday and deduced Earth Day was likely a communist plot.)
It is unlikely that the words “climate change” or “global warming” were spoken by any of the estimated 20 million people who participated in that first Earth Day. But in other ways, the pleas of participants would be all too familiar to us — that we must limit pollution, along with greed, and listen to scientists if we want an Earth that continues to be habitable. “The environmental community was never about public health until the first Earth Day. That was the big line that people crossed over,” says Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day network. “It’s about our health, the health of the planet. It’s about taking action.” Fifty years later, we’re still having the same fights — and the stakes have only gotten higher — but here’s a look at the day the modern environmental movement was born.
At left, a Pace University student smells a magnolia through a gas mask in City Hall Park in Manhttan during the first Earth Day.