When New London High School seniors Betty Flanagan and and Debbie Shea wandered out onto the Washington Mall on April 22, 1970, during their April vacation break, little did they realize that they were part of the single largest nationwide demonstration for a cause in the history of the United States.
Flanagan and Shea were part of more than 20 million Americans who demonstrated that day in various parts of the United States on behalf of the environment. In fact, in October 1993, the American Heritage Magazine stated, "On April 22, 1970, Earth Day was held ... one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy."
There can be no question that the driving force behind Earth Day was Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. The roots of the tradition trace back to 1962, when Sen. Nelson proposed the idea to both Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Both were receptive. In fact, President Kennedy began his five-state, 11-day "conservation tour" in September 1963 — just two months before his assassination. So in a very real sense, 2012 is the 50th anniversary of the idea of Earth Day, though the first organized demonstrations occurred in 1970.
Concerning the remarkable popularity of Earth Day in 1970, Sen. Nelson had this to say: "Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grass-roots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself."
Those of you old enough to remember the 1960s and ‘70s may remember the river that caught fire. It was the Cuyahoga River in northeastern Ohio — an area that actually belonged to Connecticut from 1662-1800 and was known as the "Connecticut Western Reserve." The Cuyahoga River caught fire at least 13 times from 1868-1969. It was a slow-moving, winding, brown river that was a dumping ground for sewage and chemical waste and was completely devoid of fish life.
The most remembered fire on the Cuyahoga occurred on June 22, 1969, exactly two months to the day after the first Earth Day occurred. That fire came at a time of heightened environmental awareness and wound up on the cover of Time Magazine. The Time article described the Cuyahoga as the river that did not flow but "oozed." People don’t drown in the Cuyahoga, said Time, "they decay."
The famous Cuyahoga River fire entered popular culture of the 1970s as well. Singer Randy Newmann wrote a popular song called "Burn On," based on the river fire; R.E.M.’s 1986 song "Cuyahoga" and Adam Again’s 1992 song "River On Fire" were also popular tunes based on the Cuyahoga fire of 1969. Following the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, Nobel laureate economist Paul Klugman called the Cuyahoga fire the birth of "environmentalism."
Connecticut was onboard with the concept of Earth Day very early on; in fact, Gov. John Dempsey ordered the formation of a task force to study air and water pollution in Connecticut in 1969. The result was a report issued in 1970 that became a call to action for the people of Connecticut. Spurred on by the enormous attention brought by the first Earth Day in 1970, the Connecticut legislature enacted laws to clean up the state’s environment. The state created the Department of Environmental Protection in 1970, which became a paradigm for other states to follow.
In fact, a 2010 DEP newsletter had this to say about the pre-1970 environment in Connecticut: "It’s difficult to imagine not being able to fish because of sewage and toxic waste dumped into the rivers, or getting soot in your eyes from smokestacks or open burning— but at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, these were everyday occurrences."
Following are 10 of the legislative highlights of the past 42 years since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Many of these pieces of environmental legislation have caused a complete change in the way that people in Connecticut treat their environment. Though there may be much more work to complete, it is clear that the "green revolution" ushered in by the events in 1970 have had a positive effect on Connecticut’s environment.
1971 — air quality monitoring begun
1972 — regulation of open burning started
1973 — regulation of sulfur and fuels started
1975 — pesticide control enacted
1978 — bottle bill adopted
1983 — hazardous-waste regulations adopted
1983 — vehicle emissions testing begun
1985 — regulation of underground storage tanks begun
2002 — limits set on idling motor vehicles
2007 — electronics recycling law passed
Little did Betty Flanagan and Debbie Shea of New London High School realize when they attended the first Earth Day demonstrations in April 1970 that they were part of the largest single demonstration for a cause in the history of the United States. Talk about a movement that has had a lasting impact! This "bottom-up," grass-roots movement has grown to an annual commemoration now involving more than a billion people in 171 countries.
Notes, Sources and Links
1. DEEP website
2. Wikipedia page on the Cuyahoga River
3. DEP newsletter, Spring 2010
4. Southern hemisphere countries celebrate Earth Day in our autumn — their spring.