Ron Wurzer  /  Nature Consortium via AP
Children from Sanislo Elementary School in Seattle, Wash., run with trees they're about to plant Friday at an Earth Day event that also aimed to break the Guinness World Record for most trees planted in an hour. They and adults planted 1,800 trees, and their claim to a record will be considered by Guinness.
By Miguel Llanos Reporter
updated 4/22/2005 4:05:55 PM ET 2005-04-22T20:05:55

We've all heard of Earth Day, and some of us might have actually done volunteer work to commemorate it. But is environmentalism's unofficial holiday, this Friday, still having the same impact it had during its heyday in the 1970s?

The short, but not complete, answer is: No.

On the 35th anniversary of Earth Day, tens of thousands of volunteers will clean up parks, pick up litter and restore trails. The first Earth Day was as much a day for tending the environment as it was a political event.

Earth Day was founded in 1970 by then Sen. Gaylord Nelson, whose "goal was to put the environment on the nation's political agenda in a prominent, permanent way," says Bill Christofferson, author of "The Man From Clear Lake," a new biography about Nelson.

"The first Earth Day was magical," Christofferson says. "Twenty million people — 10 percent of the U.S. population at the time — participated," many by joining sit-ins and marches.

Nearly half of those 20 million were students from 2,000 colleges and 10,000 grade schools.

AP file
Events on the first Earth Day in 1970 included this rally by several thousand people at Philadelphia's Independence Mall.
Tens of thousands of New Yorkers who jammed Fifth Avenue in a march that made the front page of the next day's New York Times. At the Washington Monument in the nation's capital, 10,000 people gathered to hear folk music from Pete Seeger and a speech by Sen. Edmund Muskie.

Earth Day inspired a wave of environmental activism that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of cornerstone environmental laws: the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts.

"The 1970s were the Environmental Decade, with 23 major pieces of environmental legislation being passed by Congress," Christofferson notes.

A different impact
Earth Day doesn't have the same influence today, but it has become an American institution.

"Because schools at all levels, from elementary through universities, are involved, Earth Day happens every year with no real need for a national organization to push it or make it happen," Christofferson says.

NASA calls this image "The Blue Marble" — a view stitched together from satellite data that the space agency describes as "the most detailed true-color image of the entire Earth to date."

Today, the Earth Day Network, which includes 5,000 groups in more than 184 countries, uses the Internet to connect individuals with volunteer opportunities on Earth Day.

But the lack of a visible leader also makes it impossible for the Earth Day Network to speak in a single voice. Few grass-roots groups, for example, have adopted or even know that the Earth Day Network has an actual theme for 2005 — "Protect Our Children and Our Future."

Christofferson believes that's less important than Nelson's other goal: nurturing an environmental ethic in young people.

Nelson loves to tell of his encounter with a third-grader as an example of how children today are more knowledgeable about the environment than college students in 1970. The girl told Nelson how she made her mom "go back to the grocery store and exchange a can of tuna, because the first one mom bought did not have a 'dolphin-free' label," Christofferson says. "It is that kind of awareness that sustains the environmental movement now."

End run around environmentalism?
But the direction of the movement is the subject of debate after two activists wrote a controversial essay in October titled "The Death of Environmentalism."

In their mind, Earth Day will falter if it becomes tied to traditional environmental groups, which they see as lacking inspiration.

"Earth Day should not belong to environmentalists," says Michael Shellenberger, one of the essay authors and co-founder of the New Apollo Project, a coalition promoting renewable sources of energy to reduce emissions tied to global warming as well as America's dependence on oil.

"I can't think of a single example when enviros have been inspirational on global warming," he says.

"We co-founded the New Apollo Project as a vision for investing in the clean energy industries of the future, just as we invested in the highways, microchip and the Internet, which would create millions of good new jobs in the U.S.," Shellenberger says. "That's an inspirational vision that Americans can get behind — far more strategic than narrow, literal-minded efforts to 'stop global warming.'"

Inspiring people, especially youth, to connect with the Earth as opposed to environmental groups is what Earth Day should be about, he says: 'We don't think that Earth Day is limited to advancing environmentalism; it can be much more."

Grass-roots activism
The debate won't be settled any time soon, but neither will it deter hundreds of groups from wrapping themselves around the Earth Day banner for events designed to attract volunteers.

One of them is the Washington Trails Association, a nonprofit group that maintains hiking trails in Washington state.

"I haven't seen the enthusiasm for Earth Day drop off at all," says spokeswoman Lauren Braden, who has worked in the environmental community for 10 years.

This year, she expects up to 30 volunteers for its Earth Day trail maintenance — double the normal number for the weekend projects to repair hiking trails.

Earth Day's call to action is particularly strong at universities, where Earth Clubs are strong, and groups like the Washington Trails association are invited to set up booths on Earth Day, she says.

Such events have led Braden to value the unofficial holiday just as Gaylord Nelson and Michael Shellenberger do. "Earth Day," she says, "is one of the most important ways to attract youth."

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