OP-ED: Earth Day, then and now

Tia Nelson
Tribune News Service
Former U.S. Senator and Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), also known as the founder of Earth Day, initiated the Earth Day Nearly 50 years ago. He said the purpose was to "get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy." (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

I was almost 14 years old on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day. I spent the day picking up trash at my junior high school, along with other young people.

My father, the late Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, came up with the idea of Earth Day. He said its purpose was to “get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy.”

Twenty million people responded to his call to action that day. In doing so, they demonstrated the power of individual action to change the course of history and help build a brighter future.

That first Earth Day ended up sparking a global movement that was successful beyond my father’s wildest dreams. It united people across political lines to take concrete steps toward a healthier planet, including the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, the planet is in the throes of a sweeping pandemic that requires an unprecedented level of global commitment and cooperation. It is a moment that could have a profound impact on humankind’s response to the existential threat posed by climate change.

The threat of climate change is as great or greater than that of the coronavirus. Perhaps we will learn, in the spirit of Earth Day, that we are able to make the collective sacrifices required to combat a common threat.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the modern environmental movement was energized. Yet when it comes to my father’s original vision of an inclusive, bipartisan environmental movement rooted in social justice, we still have work to do. Today, as we face the most significant health and environmental challenges of all time, it’s critical that we take stock of the problems and opportunities they bring.

“Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty,” my father said on Earth Day 1970 during his speech in Denver. “The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings and all other living creatures.”

He believed that we all have the right to clean air and clean water, and to economic and environmental well-being. And he believed in the power of everyday Americans to make a difference.

In recent years, the environmental community and the general public have begun to see our challenge through this lens. Groups like the Sunrise Movement have framed the issue through a much-needed social justice viewpoint and helped give birth to a new movement that views the environment, the economy, and a socially just world as inextricably linked.

What gives me hope? I reflect on Rosa Parks’ single word of defiance: “No.” Or Greta Thunberg’s simple lonely act of protest in front of the Swedish parliament.

Surely, they could have never dreamed that these simple acts of principle and conscience would change the course of history, just as my father could not have imagined that Earth Day would advance the modern environmental movement in the manner that it did.

What matters, what we desperately need now, is a conversation about how we can move forward, with the social will and political capital necessary to build a brighter future.

— Tia Nelson is managing director of the Outrider Foundation, a Wisconsin-based, globally focused nonprofit group dedicated to focusing on issues affecting the long-term well-being of the planet. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is operated by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.