April 22, 1970: While the nation’s greatest cities were smothered by pollution and the Santa Barbara oil spill plagued the California coast, people all over the United States experienced what would become the first Earth Day.
More than 20 million people demonstrated in mass rallies on behalf of a healthy environment and expressed optimism in the midst of war.
“I walked the streets of New York City on that day,” said John C. Raines, Temple Religion professor and Fulbright Senior Scholar. “Manhattan island had closed itself off to all car traffic. Can you imagine Manhattan without traffic? For a brief moment, we humans stopped being busy and thought publicly about this planet as our mother.”
Steve Zelnick, a Temple English professor, also recalled the first Earth Day. “Earth Day was everyone showing up in as little clothing as possible, some wearing headdresses, some with their bodies painted. Nothing was being filmed. Nothing was for sale.
It was partly political, Zelnick continued, “defiance against the spoiling of the Earth by corporate power and oil companies. Mostly, though, it was a positive celebration, an explosion of purity, dance and song. We honored our roots and our natural bodies.”
Since 1970, many ecological improvements have been made. Congress has passed the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. “Air quality has improved dramatically, and rivers like the Delaware and Hudson have experienced vast improvement,” said Robert J. Mason, director of Temple’s Environmental Studies Program.
Earth Day continues to be a global tradition, but it is no longer observed with the radical intensity of the past. Large-scale protests and uninhibited gatherings have been replaced by concerts, athletic events and seminars hosted by such organizations as Greenpeace.
“To some degree, we’re victims of our own success in dealing with some of the worst pollution excesses of the 1960s and ’70s,” said Mason, who expressed longing for the passion of early Earth Days. “People are still concerned about the environment, but it’s not as salient as it once was.”
Zelnick echoed Mason’s sentiment: “Though there are pale shadows of what Earth Day once was, I don’t think it will ever be the same.”
Several people, including Philip N. Hineline from Temple’s Psychology Department, emphasized a need to go beyond Earth Day to show concern for the planet. “While the formal Earth Day celebration may facilitate some changes, I’m convinced that it is more important to address environmental issues through economic and other contingencies that affect everyday practice.”
“I’ve been concerned with ecological issues for a long time,” said Leonard Swidler, another Religion professor. “We as humans have a huge impact on our surroundings, and in turn, they have an impact on us. We have to be conscious of this all the time. We have to give primary concern to environmental issues.”
Swidler added that Earth Day is a good way to draw people from all walks of life into important ecological issues, even if only for one day.