Photo by University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability on Flickr

The First Earth Day

Richard N. L. Andrews

On April 22, 1970, a handful of volunteers led by Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin organized the first Earth Day, which grew into what Newsweek magazine described as “the biggest street festival since the Japanese surrender in 1945.” It included mass rallies of up to 25,000 people in major cities, as well as “teach-ins” involving an estimated ten million young people at over 10,000 schools and some 2,000 colleges and universities. Opinion polls and media coverage confirmed the result: environmental quality had become an active, broad-based, high-priority concern for the American public.

Protecting the environment thus offered a new opportunity for mass civic action toward a positive common purpose. Previous sources of common purpose had lost much of their urgency or consensus, or both: the economy was thriving, the goal of protecting the world from tyranny had become far more divisive with the Vietnam War, and the civil rights issue was also divisive even though profoundly important.

Perhaps equally significant, both the goals and the villains of the environmental movement were traditional ones. The beauty of America had long been a powerful common value, reflected in the words of “America the Beautiful,” in the pages of National Geographic, and in patriotic pride in national parks as an American equivalent to the “crown jewels” of Europe. The most obvious culprits, in turn, were the traditional villains of American history and popular folklore: the greedy magnates of big business and the bureaucrats of big government. In reality, pollution and environmental damage also came from small businesses, from land development and farms, from local governments’ sewage outfalls and landfills, and from millions of individual consumption choices. At least initially, however, the most obvious villains were few and familiar.

The sudden coalescence of the American environmental movement, most compellingly in the Earth Day demonstrations of 1970, had immediate effects on national policy. Beginning in 1970, this nonpartisan outpouring of public demand for government action produced first a visionary, aspirational statement of national environmental policy—the National Environmental Policy Act—and then an unprecedented decade-long legacy of bipartisan legislation to reduce pollution, manage public lands for their scenic and recreational values as well as their commodities, bring environmental considerations into energy policies, protect endangered species, and begin to address international environmental issues. Over a dozen major new statutes set ambitious goals for clean air and water and safe drinking water, and established far-reaching new regulations for pesticides, toxic substances, and solid and hazardous waste management. Others addressed coastal management, endangered species and marine mammals, ocean dumping of wastes, protection of the national forests and public lands, energy conservation, alternative energy sources, and other environmental issues.

Both Republican and Democratic legislators supported these laws, and presidents of both parties signed them. The “environmental decade”—declared by President Nixon as he signed the National Environmental Policy Act on live television on January 1, 1970—produced an extraordinary body of new laws, regulations, and other policies intended to protect the environment.

From Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves by Richard N. L. Andrews. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Richard N. L. Andrews is professor emeritus of environmental policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written, taught, and advised on U.S. environmental policy for fifty years and has served on multiple national environmental policy committees.

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