IN THE summer of 1969, then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson was on a conservation speaking tour of the West when he visited the beaches of Santa Barbara, at that time despoiled by one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history. The devastation affected him deeply. Later, while reading an article about the teach-ins organized by anti-Vietnam War activists, Nelson asked himself, Why not have a day for a nationwide teach-in on the environment? Thus was born Earth Day 1970.
The original Earth Day was marked by a massive public outpouring of concern for the environment. Earth Day helped spawn new laws such as the Clean Air and Water Acts and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, but it did little to staunch the more serious wounds of our dying planet. ... Much of the activity during the 20th-anniversary celebration of Earth Day this April 22 will focus on individual acts. ... But there is a danger in an overemphasis on personal acts, when the most grievous assaults on the natural world come from corporations and nations whose self-interested policies of acquisitiveness and greed have brought us to the edge of ecological cataclysm. ...
The chair of Union Carbide, one of the planet's most notorious despoilers, understood the stakes when he said, "An aroused public can put us out of business, just like it put the nuclear industry out of business." Polluters be warned: Such work is becoming everybody's business.
Jim Rice was an assistant editor of Sojourners when this article appeared.
Image: Planet symbol on Earth Day, justaa  / Shutterstock.com