By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director
This Friday, April 22, marks the return of Earth Day—and check this out—on that day, estimates are that one billion people from 200 nations will mark the day. Earth Day has quietly emerged as the largest secular holiday worldwide with the exception of New Year’s Day.
And this year’s edition will be even more newsworthy, as many countries will begin signing the groundbreaking Paris climate change treaty that day at the UN in New York.
As big as it is, Philadelphia played a key role in Earth Day’s birth.
1970’s inaugural Earth Day began when then-Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson called for a national environmental teach-in on pollution and the environment modeled on the antiwar teach-ins of the time. Given what was happening then—smog choking cities, lead in gas and paint compromising our health, DDT causing eggshell thinning in eagles, pelicans and more, smokestacks belching pollutants into the sky while unregulated effluent poured into rivers (the Delaware River stank)—the day exploded. Nationwide, an astonishing 20 million people protested and partied, making it at the time the largest mass demonstration in American history. People marched in downtowns, buried cars in ceremonial funerals, threw dead fish into corporate headquarters lobbies, held signs picketing dirty air and endangered species. The day had a decidedly political slant.
As a seventh grader on Long Island, I organized a litter clean-up by my Catholic school at the local park and its adjoining shopping center, was bit by the environmental bug, and discovered my life’s work during the first Earth Day.
Here in Philadelphia, a group of Penn planning and landscape architecture students, many disciples of program founder Ian McHarg, the father of ecological design, grabbed onto the concept, deciding to plan a full week of activities across the city. Led by Ed Furia, a coalition grew, including students from many area colleges, and they were hugely ambitious, planning numerous events that culminated in two large ones, the first at Independence Mall on April 21, where a young Ralph Nader keynoted, the Broadway cast of Hair sang “Air” and “Let the Sunshine In,” and there was a “mass signing” of the Declaration of Interdependence. The next day, on Belmont Plateau, 50,000 gathered to hear presidential contender and Maine senator Edmund Muskie, McHarg, sci-fi author Frank Herbert of “Dune” fame, architectural critic Lewis Mumford, and beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the latter reading his beat epic Howl.
Interestingly, the notorious Ira Einhorn, not on the speaker list, famously grabbed the microphone that day to harangue the audience, and if you Google “Earth Day 1970 Philadelphia” and go to Google images, it is Ira on Belmont Plateau you likely see first. It was soon thereafter that he was accused of murdering his girlfriend, hiding in Europe for decades.
Still, Philadelphia’s edition was so successful that Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News recap of the day featured Philly’s Earth Day logo—one still seen hereabouts—in the background.
But Earth Day 1970 was a resounding political success. Not only did hundreds of environmental groups big and small form across the country, but with strokes of his pen, a pre-Watergate Dick Nixon signed bills giving birth to the EPA, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act creating environmental impact statements, and the Council on Environmental Quality. He later approved versions of Clean Air and Clean Water acts, becoming, amazingly, the most important environmental president of all time.
Fast forward to 1990, and lightning struck again as 200 million people worldwide participated in the newly global version of Earth Day, an event that jump-started recycling in communities across the country, gave new life to environmental education programs, and saw the publication of “50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth,” the bestselling environmental book of all time.
Locally that year, a coalition of people and nonprofits working with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council—yes, including me—returned to Fairmount Park for a Sunday celebration that, under unbelievably warm skies, saw 120,000 people cram into a WYSP-sponsored concert and festival that, ironically, shut down the Schuylkill Expressway for hours. Imagine that: 120,000 Philadelphians in one place.
While there’s no one big event in Philadelphia this year, my Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education presents its 5th annual Naturepalooza! Earth Day Festival on April 23 from 10 to 2. So this April 22, consider becoming one of the one billion doing something on Earth Day. Join me at Naturepalooza Saturday, or participate in any of the hundreds of events happening across the region.
This essay was originally published in the Roxborough Review on April 21, 2016.