Earth Day

A call to unite in defense of our planet by Denis Hayes, the national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970.

| April/May 2005

First Earth Day

Viewpoint author Denis Hayes (pictured in 1970) has been leading international Earth Day events since he coordinated the first Earth Day in 1970.

Photo courtesy AP Wide World Photos

Denis Hayes was national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970 — an event often credited with launching the modern American environmental movement. He is the recipient of numerous public-service awards, including the 1979 Jefferson Medal for Greatest Public Service by an Individual under 35; he was also named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Look magazine. Hayes remains chairman of the board of the international Earth Day Network (which operates in 160 countries). He also is president of the Bullitt Foundation, an environmental philanthropic organization based in Seattle.

Earth Day 1970 caught America off guard because of its enormous size and its wildly diverse participants. But what most unnerved guardians of the status quo was its message — a view of society and the world that went beyond left and right, and was rooted mostly in the obscure science of ecology.

First, consider its size. Through the gauze of time, large events that occurred 30 to 40 years ago all sort of get lumped together: the civil rights marches, the mobilization to end the Vietnam War, the Woodstock music festival. But Earth Day was at least five times larger than any anti-war rally had been and 20 times larger than any coordinated civil rights rally. Two Woodstocks could have fit comfortably into the New York City Earth Day crowd, and that was just the largest of thousands of events held in cities, towns, villages, hamlets and crossroads across America. When it became clear how large and widespread Earth Day was going to be, Congress — in an unprecedented move — adjourned in the middle of the week just so every member could go back home and try to take the pulse of what was happening.

In a nation that seemed to be coming apart at the seams in the 1960s, Earth Day pulled people together. The organizers reached out to tycoons, such as financier Dan Lufkin and welfare organizers such as George Wiley of the National Welfare Rights Organization. Participants came from every walk of life and every political persuasion

Today, virtually no one remembers that organized labor was the largest source of funding for the first Earth Day. In fact, even after Earth Day, the United Auto Workers (UAW) provided enthusiastic support for the Clean Air Act of 1970. Walter Reuther, the UAW president, was a founding director of the Coalition for Clean Air, and argued that air pollution would otherwise destroy the market for his workers’ product.

“Our members and their families are directly affected by the environment around them, whether inside the plant or outside the plant,” Reuther said. “The pollution of the air and of the water; the unwise waste of our natural resources are of concern to all of us.”

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