40 years of Earth Days

Chico’s first celebration, in 1970, was marred by a near-riot

Forty years ago, the Chico version of the first Earth Day was largely uneventful: some lectures, a teach-in, that sort of thing. The real action—and there was plenty of it, including a standoff with police—happened the day before, on Tuesday, April 21.

In Chico, as in many other college towns across the country, the first Earth Day was part of a week-long series of events, mostly of the teach-in and lecture variety. Here it was called Ecology Awareness Week.

One of the events scheduled for Tuesday involved allowing people to take a sledgehammer to a beater car donated by a university professor. Supposedly they could express their anger at polluters that way. At some point, according to a lengthy report in the Chico Enterprise-Record, the car was dragged onto West First Street, where it blocked traffic. City police ordered it moved.

Campus activists wanted to continue the blockade, however. For months they had been asking the city to close the street, and they were frustrated by what they saw as an undue delay. When the car’s owner moved it, they used wood and wire to fashion blockades on the street. Drivers who got through had to run a gauntlet. The crowd grew to an estimated 600 people. At one point the demonstrators set a small bonfire in the street.

This brought out a contingent of 50 police and a fire crew, who quickly doused the fire. After they left, however, about 50 activists, chanting “the streets belong to the people,” began a sit-down protest, continuing to block traffic.

It was a tense situation. A number of students opposed the demonstrators, and there were several dicey confrontations between the groups. Some of the protesters were yelling such things as “Pigs off campus,” while the counter-demonstrators yelled “Freaks off campus.”

The next time the police came, around 10 p.m., there were 150 of them. Police Chief Jim Evans threatened to arrest the demonstrators, but University President Robert Hill convinced him to back off and let the protest die out naturally, which it eventually did. (The city closed down the street soon afterward.)

The E-R’s 1970 Earth Day edition was dominated by news of the near-riot the day before. (The photo shows police confronting demonstrators next to a small bonfire.) The paper’s wire-service report on national Earth Day events is circled in red.

The E-R’s front page the next day, Earth Day, was dominated by a nighttime photo of police with night sticks confronting protesters standing around the bonfire. Its wire-service story of the national outpouring of more than 20 million people who participated in thousands of campus and community events across the country on the first Earth Day was relegated to a single-column below-the-fold report headlined “Americans Wage War on Pollution.”

Those who read it got a good idea of the magnitude of the event, however. In Los Angeles, skywriting planes wrote “air” over the city. Miami held a “dead orange parade,” with a prize for the “most polluted float.” Philadelphia celebrated by holding a “Declaration of Interdependence” rally. More than 100,000 people gathered in Manhattan, creating a “human jam.”

More important, perhaps, several permanent institutions were created that day. The Michigan Legislature passed a bill, 98-3, that gave private citizens the unprecedented right to take legal action against polluters. Dartmouth College announced the creation of an environmental-studies curriculum. The states of New Jersey and New York created environmental-protection departments.

These institutions, and many others like them, are the true legacy of that first Earth Day.

It’s easy to forget that in 1970 most people drove gas-guzzling, highly polluting cars with V8 engines; that several great rivers were dying from pollution; that toxic dumps were commonplace; that factories could spew pollutants into the air without consequences; that recycling was rare; that species were disappearing because of loss of habitat; and that cities such as Los Angeles were so smoggy visibility was sometimes limited to only a few blocks.

Across the country, people were becoming increasingly worried about the health of the natural environment.

Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, had appeared in 1962, alerting Americans to the dangers of untrammeled pesticide use, and in 1964 Congress had passed the sweeping Wilderness Act. In 1968 the National Wild and Scenic Rivers and National Trails acts were signed into law.

But Earth Day 1970 was the galvanizing moment that signaled the birth of the modern American environmental movement.

Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson got the idea for Earth Day after seeing the devastation caused by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. He was familiar with anti-Vietnam War campus teach-ins; why not hold environmental teach-ins all across the country? The idea took hold, and 20 million people participated in 1970.

It began as a seed idea in the mind of Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who spent much of 1969 planting that seed in others’ heads. The key, he and his fellow organizers understood, was to provide only a general outline of the Earth Day concept and then leave it up to individual communities to decide what they wanted to do.

As Nelson later wrote, “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots 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.”

And it proved that there was a large constituency that supported a cleaner planet. Politicians took notice, and as a result Earth Day’s impact, and that of the environmental movement that accompanied it, began to become apparent almost immediately. By the end of 1970, President Richard Nixon had signed such monumental laws as the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency and the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.

The following year the Clean Water Act was signed into law, and in 1973 Congress passed and the president signed the Endangered Species Act.

Since then Congress has consistently designated more and more land—millions of acres—as wilderness areas, national parks and national monuments. Most important, the government has used the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and NEPA to compel massive cleanups of polluted lands, air basins and waterways, protect endangered species such as the American bald eagle, mitigate the harmful effects of development, and decrease the amount of pollution being released by industry and individuals alike.

The states also got into the act, passing their versions of NEPA (in California, it’s the California Environmental Quality Act) and setting up their own environmental-protection agencies.

The result in cleaner air, water and land is obvious almost everywhere in the country. To take one famous example: In Los Angeles, smog levels are only a fraction of what they were in 1970, thanks to cleaner-running autos and tighter industrial-emissions controls, and despite the fact that population in that area has almost doubled.

Nelson originally foresaw Earth Day as an event to be celebrated every 10 years, but it immediately became an iconic annual holiday. In succeeding years it has spread around the globe, to hundreds of countries, and involved literally billions of people in celebration of our shared home.

In 1990, a crowd of 800,000 gathered on the National Mall to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. Sen. Nelson then told them: “I don’t want to have to come limping back here 20 years from now on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day … and have the embarrassing responsibility of telling your sons and daughters that you didn’t do your duty—that you didn’t become the conservation generation that we hoped for.”

Gaylord Nelson died in 2005. Earth Day organizers expect at least 1.5 billion people to participate in the celebration this year.