50 years later, Earth Day message still resonates

I was in junior high school when the first Earth Day captivated the world’s imagination and energized the environmental movement. In my hometown, Boulder, Colo., the city closed downtown streets to traffic to simulate what would later become one of the first urban center pedestrian malls in the United States. Musicians set up shop, and people literally danced in the streets that day, April 22, 1970.

Fifty years later, Earth Day is still recognized and celebrated around the world – a testament to its powerful and lasting message that when it comes to protecting the environment, we’re all in this together. That message resonates now perhaps more than it ever has.

Leading up to the first Earth Day, Rachel Carson had authored Silent Spring, detailing the deadly effects of the pesticide DDT on wildlife, including weakening eggshells of eagles. “Earthrise,” a stunning photo taken from space gave us a new perspective on the fragility of our planet. In Oregon, then-Governor Tom McCall was calling for progressive reforms that led to the ground-breaking Bottle Bill, open beaches and more.

Let’s think about the legacy of that spring day. Once nearly extinct, eagles now soar in the skies above Portland and wolves once again roam the Oregon backcountry. On warm days, swimmers crowd the Willamette River – a once unthinkable activity. New biofuels that emit less carbon are being developed, while growing numbers of electric cars cruise our streets and highways, emitting zero pollution. Curbside recycling has become a national norm. These are just some of the offshoots of a day that helped ingrain environmentalism into the global psyche.

Earth Day also helped create momentum and set the backdrop for new environmental regulations and government structure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened for business just seven months after Earth Day. (Oregon had established DEQ a year previous.) Around the same time, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, followed two years later by the Clean Water Act.

Today, the global threat posed by climate change has become the central focus of the environmental movement. But as we prepare to recognize the 50th anniversary milestone, the immediate public health crisis posed by the coronavirus pandemic has overshadowed longer-term concerns over global warming. As organizers prepare for the first Digital Earth Day, the message from April 22, 1970, stands: We’re in this together, and working together is our best and only choice.

– Harry Esteve, communications manager

Published by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

DEQ’s mission is to be a leader in restoring, maintaining and enhancing the quality of Oregon’s air, land and water.

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