Original Earth Day Environmentalists Nostalgic for the Good Old Days

April 22, 2010 10:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Despite the prevalence of “green” items and high-profile environmental advocacy, there is skepticism surrounding today’s Earth Day. Some experts contend that it’s a less meaningful version of the original.

Kolbert Calls Movement “Watered Down”

Last year in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert lamented the decline of the environmental movement, finding that the excitement and hope surrounding the first Earth Day in 1970 has largely subsided.

Kolbert contends that today’s version of the holiday is “reasonable” but not necessarily as imaginative or impassioned as the original, and that America’s environmental policies have not been progressive following a slew of laws passed in 1974, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The youth of 1970 used statement-making tactics, such as dragging dead fish through midtown Manhattan and pouring oil on Washington, D.C. sidewalks, Kolbert writes. Today, however, that sense of urgency and call to action seems to have largely dissipated—but not entirely. There are some companies and leaders around the world whose devotion to Earth Day ideals pushes boundaries and fights apathy.

Ecofabulous lists the six 2009 winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the most significant grassroots environmentalist award in the world. Recipients hail from various countries, including Gabon and Indonesia, and are focused on different projects, including rainforest conservation and sustainable urban development. 

Regarding federal environmental legislation in the United States, The New York Times reported on President Obama’s recent call for earth-friendly policies and business models that promote clean energy rather than oil. “The choice we face is between prosperity and decline,” Obama told the press. The president also discussed renewable energy forms that would harness wind, wave and tide power.

Likewise, some American companies are intent on greening their practices. For example, Jones Soda seems to display the environmental vigor of generations past. The company “rigged up bicycles to generate electricity” for Earth Day this year, which enabled their office to run “completely off the power grid” for an entire day.

Background: The first Earth Day

A closer look at Earth Day’s beginnings reveal more than a hippie, flower-child celebration. National Geographic’s photos of the first Earth Day reveal young people using creativity and strong statements to provoke change. 

Inspired by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day in 1970, prompting some to call the holiday “one of the most powerful ideas of his time,” according to The Wilderness Society. Nelson’s goal was to empower ordinary citizens to have influence over politics, and to make legislators overtly aware of environmental concerns.

Opinion & Analysis: Environmentalism, past and present

In an editorial for Newsday, Robert Brulle discussed the difference between past and present environmental movements, calling the modern day incarnation “complacent and overly bureaucratic” and lacking connection with everyday citizens. Brulle sees a lack of incendiary language among modern environmentalists, a quality that spurred action in the 1970s, and made people hope for a more “Utopian” earth.

In 1980, Nelson wrote about the so-called demise of the environmental movement that he began. He dismissed claims that public interest in such issues had diminished, and that various other issues, such as “inflation, the energy crisis, and international conflict,” were distractions. “In fact,” Nelson wrote, “the politics of environmentalism are so pervasive, from the grass roots to the national capital, that it is hard to believe even the most casual observer could miss it.”

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines