The environment, Earth, and all that dwell upon it should be celebrated everyday, all day. Unfortunately most of us don’t have the time in our crazy modern lives to spend more than a few brief moments every so often to stop and show our gratitude to the Earth. In fact, if you were just to look at how we’ve treated the Earth and all of its natural wonders over the last 150 years or more, you would think we downright wanted to destroy the very biosystem that allows us to exist. As we became more and more industrialized and removed ourselves increasingly away from nature, the awareness of our implications on the environment and our appreciation of all that it provides for us diminished as well. Industrialization and the development of modern technologies have had far greater impacts than we could have ever imagined and there is still a great deal of unknown complication facing us in the years ahead.
The good news is that our awareness has radically shifted in the last 50 years and it is only growing in passion and understanding. Sure, this mainstream understanding and action to repair our environment might be a direct result of our current issues showing up at our doorstep, but the movement itself is growing in leaps and bounds. Government buildings are installing solar arrays, financial strategies include a sustainability section, electric cars are actually on the road and since 2004 the amount of coal-fired powered plants in the U.S. has decreased by over 100 plants. It’s easy to roll your eyes at organic, local and green trends taking over our lives as marketable money makers that seem to be in it for the wrong reasons, but these are things I could never have dreamed of when I started my life in the environmental movement 12 years ago. It’s easy to forget just how far we’ve come since 1970 and all of the wonderful changes that cameabout thanks to the founding activists of the modern day environmental movement.
The History of the Modern Environmental Movement
The modern environmental movement was not the first, nor will it most likely be the last, but it was the catalyst that has lead us to our current cultural and political existence. Throughout written history there are many accounts of environmental awareness and concerns about human involvement and degradation of nature in its untouched state. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution and human expansion of the globe that the collective voice got much louder and eventually took the form of what we now call the conservation movement.
The conservation movement did not reach the U.S. until the late 1800s with the rapid expansion of the West in an attempt to protect and save natural areas from complete annihilation. The most outspoken of these conservationists was Wisconsin’s own John Muir. His incredible influence would eventually reach President Theodore Roosevelt and drive him to create the National Park system. Muir also created the Sierra Club, which is a non-profit organization that is still a vital aspect of the current environmental movement today.
While conservation efforts gained major successes in the form of National Parks and widespread public awareness, the efforts of the likes of John Muir, Henry David Thoreau and President Teddy Roosevelt did not address the indirect impacts the Industrial Revolution had on the environment in the form of pollution. It wasn’t until after World War II that the detrimental impacts of an industrialized and ever growing human population was brought to the public knowledge. Yet another Wisconsinite was at the forefront of this renewed movement, which would culminate into the modern day environmental movement. Bridging the conservation movement and the environmental movement, Aldo Leopold wrote A Sand County Almanac in the 1940s, which established the notion of a “land ethic.” This land ethic recognized that maintaining the “beauty, integrity, and health of natural systems is a moral and ethical imperative.” The stage was set for the modern environmental movement.
The 1960s saw a radical shift in how our country viewed our cultural norms and a paradigm shift was underway in nearly every aspect of life in America. Rachel Carlson’s book Silent Spring is often referenced as the single greatest catalyst for the modern environmental movement. It was powerful example of how the sharing of knowledge could start a cultural revolution. This was a book about the detrimental effects of pesticides (specifically DDT) on bird populations and the impact this would have on our world. This was just the tip of the iceberg.
Although the 1960s saw a great deal of firsts in terms of environmental policy and law, the acts that were passed were weak at best, but it was a start. The first Water Quality Act (1965), Clean Air Act (1963), and the Endangered Species Act (1966), among others, were unenforceable and left much to be desired.
The First Earth Day
After the massive 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, the then Senator of Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, became inspired to force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Senator Nelson’s idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” borrowed ideas from the civil rights and anti-war movements and targeted college students to bring people together for the very first Earth Day celebration. On April 22nd, 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks and auditoriums to rally for political action that would bring about long lasting changes for environmental health and sustainability.
The first Earth Day was a smashing success with more than 10% of the entire U.S. population taking part and widespread political support across party lines. The event led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and major reforms and amendments to the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. This tradition marks the beginning of the modern environmental movement.
Although awareness, legislation and environmental activism surged in the 1970s, the 1980s saw a dramatic backslide in environmental protection thanks largely in part to President Reagan’s initiatives. He cut EPA funding in half, gave most of the EPA’s power to the Office of Management and Budget and even removed the solar panels on the White House. It wasn’t until the 1990s that there was a dramatic return to environmental concerns as the planet began to significantly heat up.
In 1990 Earth Day went international with 141 countries and 200 million people participating in the 20th anniversary celebration. The celebration helped pave the way for the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as well as long overdue amendments to the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. Since then, the environmental movement has done nothing but grow.
Today & Beyond
Today the term environmental movement is more of an umbrella concept with many different branches spreading out to address specific concerns, yet they all share the same goal, to protect and heal our environment, human health and social policies. Concepts that were once viewed as separate concerns are now coming together as a united front as addressing the impacts and creating solutions becomes a team effort. Movements addressing our food system, health care system, social equality, immigration, conservation and the environment are now all working side by side as the lines become blurred and the impact of one leads to the other. With a united front, the solutions to the giant issues do not seem so impossible.
What was once just Earth Science in schools is now Conservation Biology, Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, Environmental Policy, Environmental Economics, Social Justice, Environment and Human Health, and the list goes on. The same players exist (Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, etc.) and have expanded their goals and tactics to match the times and welcome in an ever-growing number of compatriots. The story is still the same, yet with a growing scientific understanding, public awareness and modern concerns such as climate change, industrial agriculture, genetic manipulation and ever-increasing list of toxic pollutants.
The environmental movement story is a story about Wisconsin. The most prominent figures and leaders in the movement have come from Wisconsin. Will you be the next leader to address the environmental concerns of our time? I know I always hoped I would be, but there is only so much one person can do. The important thing is that we don’t stop trying or dreaming because one of us will be that catalyst, that leader that we need to unify our efforts and make wide sweeping changes for our future generations. We do all that we can within our own lives, continue to educate ourselves and our neighbors with an open mind and pretty soon, everyday is Earth Day.