Written with guest writer, Tanya Jagdish, a sophomore biology and mathematics major from India.
Earth Day is celebrated every year on April 22 to raise public awareness about the current state of the planet. What began as a day of environmental preservation in the United States is now a unifying, global movement that brings together people from all countries, backgrounds and cultures to celebrate the beauty of this planet.
As the world approaches 50 years of celebrating Earth Day, there are many historical moments for us to reminisce upon. Besides the photos and articles that elicit memories about this long journey, there is one person who has seen and experienced the change since the beginning.
Albion College history professor Wes Dick has lived through it all and is still making an effort to make Earth Day 50 as special as any other.
First Earth Day, 1970
The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. This was not just an environmental movement but also a movement for political and racial equity. In the decades leading up to the first Earth Day, several events raised public awareness about the environmental degradation caused by man.
The publication of Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring set the stage in 1962. This book warned readers across America about the dangerous effects of DDT and other chemicals on humans and wildlife. She raised awareness about the indivisible link between pollution and human health. Carson’s book, along with Paul R. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, induced a certain level of anxiety regarding the state of the environment.
In 1970, Earth Day provided a voice for this rising environmental consciousness.
In 1965, the beginning of the Vietnam War caused college campuses to be filled with discussions about foreign conflicts.
“College students were educated about Vietnam through teach-ins on campuses. The environment, a new issue, came to the forefront in the late 1960s,” said Dick.
Inspired by the Vietnam War Model, Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed Earth Day as a national teach-in on the environment.
“Rather than a march on Washington, He advocated that local communities host their own Earth Day events,” said Dick.
In the same time period, an offshore oil drill blew up, pouring 3 million gallons of crude oil onto the beautiful beaches of Santa Barbara, California, in 1969. This single event killed more than 10,000 wildlife animals. Dick noted how this event gave impetus to the urgency for the anticipated 1970 Earth Day.
Albion College students joined this national environmental movement and became one of the first institutions to celebrate Earth Day. Walt Pomeroy, a geology major, was a key organizer. He co-chaired Save the Environment through Ecology (SEE), the student group that organized Albion’s first Earth Day celebration. Events began as early as on March 24 and continued through April 22.
“The program for the first Earth Day in Albion was ambitious,” said Dick.
The events included a half-dozen speaker panel, clean-up projects, tree planting and a rock and folk music festival. Albion College made noise (literally) and caught the nation’s attention via a campus-wide aluminum can smashing event. Walt Pomeroy connected Albion to CBS, and reporters and camera crew came to Albion to cover the events. Albion had the honor of being part of CBS’s Earth Day broadcast hosted by America’s most famous news anchor, Walter Cronkite.
Like the nationwide movement, Earth Day 1970 in Albion was more than just an environmental movement. Students were protesting the in loco parentis housing policies on campus. Black students were calling attention to the racial issues. Campaign GM, a stockholders’ movement to influence General Motors policies regarding the environment and racial equity, was also happening on Albion’s campus.
“News broke that Four Students Were Dead in Ohio. During a campus anti-Vietnam War protest, the Ohio National Guard shot 13 Kent State students, killing four.” said Dick. “Kent State brought the war home to college campuses in the most dramatic way yet. There were student strikes, and many colleges cancelled courses and graduation ceremonies for the semester.”
Dick described that the turbulence of the 1960s was still spilling over at the time of the first Earth Day.
“Earth Day 50 in 2020, of course, has gotten caught up in the turbulence of the virus crisis.” said Dick. “Colleges have sent their students home, and courses are being conducted remotely via the internet, which had not yet been born in 1970.”
Dick was also personally connected to the first Earth Day.
“The excitement and the buzz in the build up for Earth Day had begun in the fall of 1969 in time to consider classes for the spring 1970 semester,” said Dick. “I proposed [the class] ‘History of Conservation in America,’ and was teaching the class ahead of Earth Day itself.”
Dick said that it was exciting to teach a new class when the whole country was focused on the environment. He described the sense that the planet was in peril and that urgent action was needed to combat pollution.
“The environment was a worthy cause.” said Dick. “Soon after, I changed the name of the class to ‘Environmental History.’”
50 years later, Dick still teaches this course at Albion College, and is even currently teaching it this semester.
1986 Symposium: “A Declaration Interdependence: Society, Environment and the Land Ethic”
On October 29 and 30, 1986, Albion College hosted a symposium titled “A Declaration Interdependence: Society, Environment and the Land Ethic,” in honor of Aldo Leopold centennial. Aldo Leopold was an American author, philosopher, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist and environmentalist. He was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and wilderness conservation.
The keynote speaker for this event was none other than Gaylord Nelson, the founder of the first Earth day and the chairman of the Wilderness Society. Other participants included John Berger, author of Restoring the Earth: How Americans Are Working to Renew Our Damaged Environment; Elizabeth Dodson Gray, a pioneering eco-feminist; Tom Alcoze, Cherokee biologist and a college professor; and Walt Pomeroy, organizer of Albion’s first Earth Day in 1970.
This event inspired Albion College students to initiate the Ecological Awareness Club.
Twentieth Earth Day Anniversary, 1990
Similar to the first Earth Day, the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day gained momentum when the Exxon Valdes ran aground, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, killing hundreds of thousands of marine animals and causing long-term environmental degradation.
“It was a déjà vu cataclysm.” said Dick.
Inspired and motivated by the state of the planet, the Ecological Awareness Club planned for a robust Earth Day celebration.
“The name of David Brower, a legend in the environmental field through the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Earth Island Institute, came up.” said Dick. “Conventional wisdom said, you can’t get someone as famous as David Brower to come to Albion for the twentieth Anniversary of Earth Day. We phoned him, and to our joyous surprise, he agreed to come to Albion.”
Browner gave a keynote speech titled “The Lessons and Legacies of the Environmental Movement.” A PBS documentary was also shown along with a film screening of “The Lorax.” There were a plethora of speakers invited along with an all species parade. The parade was titled “No Extinction Without Representation,” and featured many Albion Elementary School students costumed and painted as their favorite species. Some Albion College students and faculty also participated.
“I went as the Old Growth Forest,” said Dick.
Thirtieth Earth Day Anniversary, 2000
The thirtieth Earth Day was marked special by an annual symposium titled, “Environmental Activism for the New Millennium.” This symposium was initiated by Dick.
Robert F. Kennedy, a prominent environmental leader and the keynote speaker for the symposium, gave a speech on “Our Environmental Destiny.” Sandra Steingraber presented “Living Downstream,” a scientific and personal account of environmental toxins and carcinogens. Chris Interpreter, an indigenous Navajo, talked about his resistance to the environmental contamination of the Big Mountain area of the Navajo Reservation by big energy corporations. Finally, Musician David Rovics provided environmentally themed music.
Environmental Movement Today
Looking back, Albion has actively taken part in the Environmental movement throughout its history.
Recently, 2010 and 2014 were named “The Year of Sustainability” at Albion College. With the Center for Sustainability and the Environment, previously known as the Environmental Institute, taking the center stage, the environmental movement has become an integral component of Albion College’s growth.
The environmental category has also raised awareness among students.
“I tell my students that they should study environmental history as if their life depended on it.” said Dick. “That was true in 1970, 1990, 2000 and today. Arguably, Albion College should have more environmental requirements.”
Dick went on to explain how his calling as a professor has been to explore with students how humans have created the environmental crisis, how humans have worked to mitigate environmental damage and how humans have offered new visions of living more lightly on the Earth. While Dick understands that the discussion of environmental degradation and damage is depressing, he also supports the idea that humans need hope.
“We need truth and do not need denial,” said Dick. “ My goal is to go beyond despair and to give students a reason for hope. That hope can be found in America’s environmental pioneers and activists, in the creation of Earth Day, in our students who take the issues of the environment to heart and who apply their environmental knowledge to making a difference in the world.”
As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day from our homes, we are reminded about our long struggles to reach this point. COVID-19 may have forced the cancelation of many events, but Earth Day is not one of them. Global mobilization to address urgent threats to people and the planet will go on, but now online. You can still participate in this global movement by using “#earthday” and “#myalbion” on social media.