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How far we’ve come and how far we need to go

In the early 1960s, Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, proposed a nationwide conservation tour to President John F. Kennedy. The tour, which took place in September 1963, was overshadowed by other events. However, six years later, in the summer of 1969, Nelson got the idea for a national “teach-in” about the environment. Planning began for this teach-in, which was dubbed Earth Day and set for April 22, 1970. A call went out. And Americans responded.

Going into that first Earth Day, no one could have predicted what was about to occur. School children, college students, community leaders, public officials, and citizens mobilized a huge, grassroots effort. By April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans, or 10 percent of our nation’s population in that year, took part.

This demonstration for the environment brought about sweeping changes at the federal and state levels. Later that same year, President Richard Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by Executive Order. In the years that followed, dozens of environmental laws were passed, protecting our coastlines, clearing our air, and cleaning
up our water supplies.

Today, more than three decades later, the successes of Earth Day are readily apparent. The worst of our day-to-day environmental problems have been addressed. However, we’re left with much to do.

  • At least 218 million Americans, more than 75 percent of our population, live within 10 miles of a polluted body of water. Much of this pollution results not from treated end-of-pipe waste, but from what we now call “non-point source” pollution. In other words, small quantities of pollutants coming from many unidentified sources, including our own backyards where runoff includes pesticides, pet waste, and litter.
  • Energy use continues to grow. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that global demand will increase by 60 percent over the next 20 years. At the same time, global oil production is expected to peak and begin to decline in the same period.
  • In a typical year, 4.5 billion pounds of chemical pesticides are used in the U.S. alone—about 17 pounds per person. Meanwhile, concerns continue about the persistence of many of these chemicals in the environment, as well as the health effects of their combination in the environment and the human body.
  • Our computerized society has become anything but paperless. In fact, office paper consumption is rising by about 20 percent per year. By 2050, as much as half of the industrial timber harvested may be turned into paper.

This year, and every year, Earth Day rolls around as a reminder that we still have work to do. The founders of Earth Day believed that it would take many decades to “catch up”
with the pollution that already existed. We still have some of that catching up to do. And, of course, we’ve created new problems along the way.

The good news is that Earth Day—then and now—is about individuals acting to make a difference. Today, you can make that difference. Get involved. Reduce the amount of waste in your life—conserve energy, save water, and create less trash. Recycle all that you can, providing useful materials to the manufacturing process. And, spread the word, especially to children and youth. Someday soon this will be their environment. Show them how and why to take care of it now.

book earthdayOther Resources

Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise

By Gaylord Nelson with Susan Campbell and Paul Wozniak

“Where our planet’s health is concerned, I have always believed that a public armed with knowledge is a public armed with the means and the determination to find a solution.”


“The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. All economic activity is dependent upon that environment and its underlying resource base of forests, water, air, soil, and minerals. When the environment is finally forced to file for bankruptcy because its resource base has been polluted, degraded, dissipated, and irretrievably compromised, the economy goes into bankruptcy with it. The economy is, after all, just a subset within the ecological system.”