How Earth Day became … so everyday
At 38, an activist event has become an occasion for noting widespread practices – and for eyeing new concerns.
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For the second year in a row, the Chinese government is actively supporting Earth Day. Last year, so many Chinese sought information that it "crashed our website," Ms. Rogers says.Skip to next paragraph
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Rallies remain a keystone Earth Day activity. This Sunday, gatherings will be held on the National Mall in Washington and in seven other cities. A petition at www.earthday.net asks Congress to ban the building of coal-fired power plants, increase reliance on renewable energy sources, and require new buildings to be more energy-efficient. "We need Congress to understand something that they don't at all, that Americans really care about this issue," Rogers says.
But much of what the network does involves local efforts. Just days ago Rogers received an e-mail from a woman in Paris, Tenn., who owns a beauty parlor and had heard about Earth Day. The woman wanted to donate 20 percent of her income for the next three months to the Earth Day Network. Rogers says she instead suggested that the woman collect donations from customers and pay to install energy-saving light bulbs in the local high school.
Cleanups remain popular Earth Day projects. On April 20, New York's Central Park will host planting and mulching. In Concord, Mass., Musketaquid Earth Day is May 3 (Musketaquid is the native American name for the area). Small rafts made of pine logs and decorated with other natural materials will be launched onto the Concord River.
"They decompose where they land," says Morwen Two Feathers, coordinator of the Musketaquid Arts and Environment Program. "It's a symbolic way of saying [that] we send things downstream and we don't always know what happens to them."
Businesses mark the day, too. At HOK, a global architectural firm, April 22 is "Go Barefoot Day" as the 2,600 employees make a difference "one step at a time." They're being asked to use no paper that day, trade bottled water for tap water, and take special care to turn off lights and computers whenever not in use. "Like anything, change is hard. But if you change once, you're more likely to do it again," says Mary Ann Lazarus, the firm's director of sustainable design.
What's changed since 1970
While the environment remains the focus, much about Earth Day has changed since 1970, says Adam Rome, an associate professor of history at Penn State University who's working on a book on the subject.
"The first Earth Day was [conceived] partly out of frustration and anger that basic issues like air pollution and water pollution still had not been addressed," he says. Concern over population growth also loomed. "[There was] a sense that something needed to be done to force the leaders of the country ... to take these issues seriously," he says. Global warming was unknown to the general public, though Professor Rome notes that news coverage on April 22, 1970, included a story about a weather-service scientist who said "a lot of evidence" was accumulating to show the earth was warming.
New attention comes from areas beyond the business community. While some churches called for sermons on the topic in 1970, "by and large, institutional religion wasn't interested in environmental issues back then," Rome says. Today, caring for the earth is "a fundamental theological issue," he says.
New environmental concerns have entered the picture too, such as health-related concerns over food-supply safety, Rome says.
The era surrounding the first Earth Day, 1968-73, saw the passage of keystone environmental legislation, including the National Trails System Act and the Endangered Species Act, Professor Sutter points out. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970 as well.
This year, no major environmental bills are likely to pass Congress, Mr. Maisano says. "We're in a very different situation now," Rome says. "We've addressed a lot of the problems that concerned the people in 1970."