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Earth Day, 1970: A Time of Crisis Remembered

UC Associate Professor of History David Stradling says a feeling of crisis led up to the first Earth Day, but dramatic early progress on environmental issues has actually made succeeding Earth Days more commemoration than days for action.

Date: 4/19/2010 12:00:00 AM
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825

UC ingot   The launch of Earth Day in 1970 came at a moment when Americans were becoming keenly aware of unaddressed environmental issues all around them, according to UC Associate Professor of History David Stradling, whose research interests include environmental history.

Stradling has put together a lecture on the founding of Earth Day. His goal is to give listeners an idea of just how much of a crisis atmosphere existed at the time.

“There was a whole series of different things, and it was the weight of all these disparate things at once,” Stradling says. “Most American cities suffered from serious air pollution problems, and there were terrible water pollution issues near every big city. As an example, I’m using an image of the Cuyahoga River, when it caught fire in 1969. There were also things like a major oil spill that took place around Santa Barbara, Calif., and topics such as global population growth that were becoming an issue for the planet.”

Stradling will present as evidence of public concerns at the time a collection of letters sent from school kids to Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, asking him to take action on the environment.

Serving as a catalyst for the creation of Earth Day was the general atmosphere of activism prevalent in the United States during the era. Teach-ins were being planned on the environment on college campuses for the first Earth Day, but as Stradling points out, supporting the goals of Earth Day was politically much more palatable for a wide audience than concurrent divisive issues such as anti-war activism and civil rights activism.

Even President Richard M. Nixon understood the populist appeal behind such a movement, creating the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. That change alone created massive reform, Stradling says, as the force of government regulation began to address many of the most appalling examples of environmental abuse.

“One of the reasons the environmental movement starts to wane fairly soon after the first Earth Day is because of the wave of legislation that happens, and the benefits that come from it,” Stradling believes. “People don’t have to worry about lead coming from gasoline anymore. That was just gone. Once they start to see problems as being solvable, the sense of crisis eases.”

Because of that, Stradling says he thinks Earth Day has become more of a commemoration than anything else. “That’s one of the reasons it’s important to talk about the first Earth Day,” he says. “We don’t do now what we did on that day, which was assess our own relationship with the environment and decide what we need to do about it as good citizens.”

Stradling’s talk, titled “Climate 101: The Environmental Crisis and Earth Day, 1970,” was given Wednesday night as part of Earth Day activities at UC.