Today marks the 39th annual celebration of Earth Day. It is a more obscure holiday, unheralded by commercial extravagance, but one that represents a turning point in national attitudes about the environment.
This year, several campus environmental organizations, including Ecology House, Sustainability Hub, KyotoNow!, ESW and Roots and Shoots will be celebrating Earth Day on Ho Plaza. These groups are working together with the Society for Natural Resource Conservation (SNRC) to construct a plastic water bottle structure consisting mostly of unrecycled items from campus garbage. “Most [of] the items in garbage cans can be recycled or composted, and we’re trying to raise awareness about this and provide alternatives like reusable bottles to students and especially incoming freshmen,” said Sherry Martin ’11, president-elect of SNRC. “Furthermore, water bottles aren’t recycled — they’re down-cycled into lower quality plastic products.” The event will boast a structure that is around 10 ft long by 5 ft high, or approximately the size of a small room, according to Martin, which will be displayed on Ho Plaza.
Their demonstration will carry on a tradition of awareness campaigns that dates back to the beginning of the holiday. Senator Gaylord Nelson was the chief sponsor of the legislation that made Earth Day a reality. Born in Clear Lake, Wis. in 1916, Nelson was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School and a life-long conservationist who served in World War II. For several years, Nelson had been troubled by the fact that the state of the environment was not on the radar as a national issue. So with the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, he convinced President John F. Kennedy to go on a five-day, 11-state conservation tour in September 1963. Although the tour ultimately proved unsuccessful in raising awareness, Nelson was inspired by the fervor of the anti-war protesters he encountered on this and later tours and decided to try and infuse some of that energy into the environmental movement. Nelson began organizing grassroots protests against the environmental damage being observed in various parts of the country, culminating with events all over the nation in the spring of 1970. That was the first Earth Day, an ‘organically grown’ movement resulting in a national holiday that promoted awareness of the human connections to the environment.
The history of environmentally active Cornellians stretches back farther than some might think, and a particular alumnus even engineered the passage of the Clean Air and Water Act. While Nelson’s efforts were useful for raising awareness, Earth Day in and of itself did not change environmental policy. More measureable progress came that same year (1970) when Senator Ed Muskie law ’39 proposed the Clean Air Act. The act, in conjunction with the later Clean Water Act and Superfund legislation, created the first comprehensive regulatory structure for environmental pollutants of the air, water and ground. These acts created protocols that ensured polluters paid for the cleanup of their sites and instituted systems for making sure pollution standards were met. Muskie also fought for things like $18 billion of additional funding for environmental waste treatment sites. According to Prof. Jeff Rachlinski, who teaches environmental law in the Law School, “A key shift in U.S. attitudes towards environmental policy came with the passage of the Clean Air Act and later the Clean Water Act. Before 1969 there was virtually no significant federal legislation regulating ground, air or water pollution. The passage of these measures was a political anomaly for the time, since it ran counter to powerful interest groups like the automotive industry and individuals who study legislatures have trouble with this period.”
While the world may have a long way to go towards achieving a sustainable future, Fil Eden, president of KyotoNow, said there is plenty to celebrate on Earth Day. “Since the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the ’70s, we have seen emissions [of certain pollutants] reduced by 90 percent.”
Rachlinski agreed, “By all measures, the environment is much cleaner today than it once was. For example, before environmental legislation, 2/3 of the days in a year were considered “hazardous air quality” days for New York City, now that number is under 30. Likewise for Los Angeles, there was a decrease from 200 to under 100 hazardous air quality days per year, for an area that even the EPA said would never be clean.”