It had only been a year since black students emerged from Willard Straight Hall clutching guns in an attempt to demand greater equality for minorities at Cornell. The nation was disillusioned by what seemed to be a never-ending war in Vietnam and the world was grappling with the announcement that The Beatles were to disband. The day was April 22, 1970, and despite rising tensions that reverberated across college campuses, the nation’s youth were coming together for the first time to celebrate something they could all relate to: The Earth.
Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the first nation-wide Earth Day, which was initially conceived by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson as a day to raise awareness of and appreciation for ecology. Since its inception, Earth Day has evolved. At Cornell, the University recognizes Earth Week — a week-long celebration of environmental awareness.
Cornell’s Ecological Action Committee helped plan and execute the inaugural Earth Day, which was then a day of teach-ins on topics including population growth, pollution, power supply and the impact of automobiles on the environment. Then University President Dale Corson went as far as encouraging faculty members to reschedule that day’s classes so that students could partake in Earth Day events.
While across the country people celebrated the environment by picking up trash and cleaning streets, Earth Day at Cornell in 1970 did not include local clean-ups. Instead, the EAC sought to develop a “cogent economic, political and social analysis of the basis of the environmental crisis” by hosting seminars with officials such as J.F. MacDonald, a member of President Nixon’s Council on Environmental Quality, according to Sun archives.
The inaugural Earth Day was emblematic of the increasingly popular campaign to raise environmental awareness at a time when other forms of campus activism were being exhausted.
“Earth Day marked a transition period, when the fires of anger, over the war, racism, etc., that had inflamed so many campuses for so many years were starting to burn themselves out,” former Sun associate editor Jay Branegan ’72 stated in an e-mail.
With the fire of protest slowly dying, campus activism began to root itself in environmental causes.
“The economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s had created an enormous pollution problem, one which young people today can’t appreciate,” Branegan explained. “There were no rules, no controls, factories were dumping into waterways, spewing into the air, which were both filthy.”
In a column that ran in The Sun on Apr. 22, 1970, Stephanie Seremetis ’71, a coordinator of the EAC, argued for a heightened sense of responsibility among Cornellians.
“The problems of today did not just happen, but are the culmination of many years of wrong-doing, false beliefs, and working with standards that were not for the benefit of all concerned with nature and her fundamental laws,” Seremetis wrote. “It will tax the ingenuity of our best minds to direct a sick and plagued society into a new era of living for service and not for greed alone.”
An editorial that ran alongside this column in The Sun that same day argued that personal responsibility would not be enough to counter the pollution problems of the time. Instead, The Sun opined that the “standards of corporate responsibility must be established [and] our technology must be liberated from its post-industrial consumerism.”
At the time, Cornell was also feeling the effects of the growing environmental movement in the classroom. It was in 1970 that Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources changed its name from the Department of Conservation, taking a more interdisciplinary approach to confronting the world’s ecological challenges.
Despite the momentum behind the environmental movment, Prof. Richard Polenberg, history, has no recollection of the Earth Day celebration in 1970, which occurred in the midst of unsettling world events. Eight days after the inaugural Earth Day, President Nixon ordered troops to invade neutral Cambodia, further exciting anti-war sentiment in the U.S. On May 4, four students were killed and nine were wounded by Ohio State National Guardsmen at a anti-war protest at Kent State University.
When asked if a neutral cause like ecological sustainability could have served as a unifying force during such times, Polenberg responded, “It would have taken more than Earth Day to bring this campus together.”