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. Environmental experts are increasingly convinced that unless humanity drastically changes the way it relates to creation, the very survival of life on Earth is threatened -- and as soon as in the next few decades.
Much of the activity during the 20th-anniversary celebration of Earth Day this April 22 will focus on individual acts: conservation, recycling, the use of environmentally benign products, and the like. If done on a truly massive scale, such individual and community efforts could have a powerful effect on the whole of our society, including the sphere of public policy.
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. And the United States, to its great shame, has been the world's foremost contributor to bringing the planet to this perilous state of affairs.