Monday, April 22, marks the 44th annual observance of Earth Day. It was founded in 1970 at the urging of a number of environmental groups and others interested in bringing public attention to the threat to human, animal and plant life posed by pollution and other factors detrimental to healthy living.
Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, at the time, was the leading voice on Capitol Hill in support of environmental awareness. He chose Denis Hayes, a Stanford graduate then studying at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, to play the lead organizational role in the various rallies around the country to observe Earth Day.
Although the Nixon Administration, along with Congress, was already at work on several initiatives involving the environment such as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the high turnout and strong passion for their cause shown by the Earth Day demonstrators served as a reminder that the issues surrounding ecology were of enormous importance to Americans, in a way that transcended political lines. The White House accordingly stepped up its efforts to curtail pollution and protect the biosphere. By the end of that year, President Nixon had signed the executive order creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
Denis Hayes went on to pursue a career dedicated to the safeguarding of the environment, and has since been involved in the coordination of many Earth Day events. In an interview with Emily Feldman of Chicago’s NBC-5 TV station, he reflects on the concerns of 2013 compared to those of 1970, and points out the important role the thirty-seventh President played in the events that followed the first Earth Day:
I think that [the public has] the the same level of concern now for things that immediately affect themselves and their families, their neighborhoods and their nation that are easily identified, which is what we were able to capitalize on back then. But with regard to the climate issue, it is much more difficult to get people to get their arms around intellectually and it’s much more difficult to come up with a solution or series of solutions in the current anti-tax, anti-regulatory environment.
Remember, in 1970 we had a Republican president who was okay with signing a Clean Air Act and creating an Environmental Protection Agency, and that has just dramatically changed. Richard Nixon, for all of his conservatism, was arguably more progressive than the majority of the current democratic members of congress.