The first Earth Day was celebrated with rallies, protests, and environmentalist demonstrations. It was 1970, and the counterculture movement was in full swing. Across the country, students and other young activists protested for equal rights and against the Vietnam War. The previous decade had seen Civil Rights, Stonewall, the assassinations of JFK and MLK, and The Feminine Mystique. It had also seen oil spills, nuclear weapons tests, and an actual fire on the Cuyahoga River. Still, most Americans had been more or less unconcerned about environmental issues, if they were even aware of them. In 1970, the first Earth Day was organized by grassroots activists and student volunteers. Rallies in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and most other major American cities aimed “to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.” Rallies included speeches and performances from celebrities including Paul Newman and Pete Seeger.
In recent decades, Earth Day has become more mainstream and lost some of its political edge. Stream clean-ups and nature walks have replaced student protests and teach-ins. Earth Day is now “the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year.” It’s so mainstream that it’s now something kindergartners celebrate in school. In a way, that’s great. More people are taking time to appreciate this planet we live on, and kids are learning from a young age that recycling is good and littering is bad. And for a while, it seemed like that might be enough for one day. We had a president who believed that climate change was real and posed a genuine threat. We felt safe and secure that the EPA and environmental protection legislation weren’t going anywhere. And though we worried about the effects of climate change and had to fight to protect our planet, we could at least feel like maybe our climate marches and environmental activism were pushing things in the right direction. Earth Day could afford to be an apolitical celebration of nature and recycling.
We are living in a very different world now than we were last Earth Day. Much like the National Parks Service, the once uncontroversial Earth Day has unexpectedly become subversive and rebellious. Our government is run by climate change deniers who seem hell-bent on destroying the environment. Facts and science have become political. Things like climate change and environmental protection are seen as topics for political debate instead of just objective fact. Science isn’t supposed to be political. Facts aren’t partisan. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” We shouldn’t need to be organizing protests for something as objective and unwavering as science, and yet, that’s exactly what happened around the world today.
Lat year on Earth Day, Barack Obama signed the Paris Climate Agreement. This year, we’re marching to urge our leaders to listen to facts. In our current political climate, it’s not enough to celebrate Earth Day by appreciating nature and picking up trash. The time for uncontroversial, apolitical Earth Day is over. We’re on the defensive now, and it’s time we return Earth Day to its political, radical roots. In the Age of Trump, Earth Day, like just about everyone and everything else, can’t afford to shy away from the political. Earth Day under Trump is an act of rebellion. A revolution led by rebel scientists and rogue park rangers might not be what anyone expected, but it’s exactly what we need to save the world.