A Brief History of Earth Day

Did you see the PBS documentary, Earth Days,  that aired this week? It’s an inspiring history of the events and people who created Earth Day. I have to admit that before watching Earth Days, I really didn’t know anything about the origins of Earth Day. The documentary does an amazing job of pairing interviews and narration with video illustrating what is being discussed. I was surprised to learn how much of a positive impact Richard Nixon had on the environmental movement and the establishment of Earth Day. Nixon even gave a rebel-rousing speech extolling the advancement of energy sources that would decrease the country’s need on foreign oil. It was during Nixon’s presidency that OPEC nations began cutting off the supply of oil to the United States leading to the energy crisis of the 1970s.

This crisis continued to dominate the times into President Carter’s term and Carter responded with further initiatives to alleviate America’s dependance on oil including laws that forced Detroit to make cars that ran longer on less gas. Did you know that Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the White House? I had no idea. These panels generated enough energy to heat all of the hot water within the building, which is fairly impressive considering the size of the White House and the limited solar technology available at the time.

This “Green” movement took place during the 1970’s and real advancements were made–pollution was slowed, lakes and streams were cleaned, air quality was improved, alternative energy development sources utilizing the sun and wind were built.  40 years after the first Earth Day we should all have affordable and easily acquired access to solar and wind energy. Gas guzzling automobiles should be as antiquated and odd-looking as Gremlins and Novas, the concept of “Green” should be so passe that we are already onto something better.

So what happened? Simply put, Ronald Reagan happened. Reagan campaigned on a notion that we are Americans and we shouldn’t have to conserve anything. He convinced people that alternative energy was a showing of weakness and set the Republican party, which had been an eco-conscious group, on it’s steroid-laden post industrial binge. After taking office, Reagan began systematically destroying almost everything the environmental movement had achieved. He started by cutting the funding to groups working to further reduce the oil dependency, repealed the strict automobile efficiency standards and, in a public display, tore down the White House’s solar panels erected by Carter.

Imagine what our world could be like today if Reagan furthered the environmental movement or, at the absolute least, left it alone.

Despite Reagan’s efforts, Earth Day continues today and the principles it was founded on seem to be finding more of a following than ever before. People of all walks of life (not just radical hippies) are making changes in their lives to reduce the destruction of the Earth.

If you haven’t watched Earth Days yet, I highly recommend it. You can watch it now on PBS.org by clicking here or check your TV’s guide channel for more showings.

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