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As Earth Day Turns 50, Organizers Recall Successes That Followed The First

 April 22, 2020 at 11:26 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first earth day. Yet thanks to the pandemic, there won't be big rallies or festivals to Mark the milestone in San Diego or anywhere else, but the day will not go on remembered. KPBS reporter Claire Treg sir talks to people who were at the first earth day about its impact and their hopes for the future. Speaker 2: 00:24 April, 1970 marked the first ever earth day that year, 20 million people joined rallies and celebrations across the country. Dennis Hayes was one of the organizers Speaker 3: 00:36 that there was a ripeness in the country for people to rise up on environmental issues and thought that the way to lunch it was as they had done with the early stages of the antiwar movement with campus teach-ins. Um, it turned out that when we could on two campuses, there were still entirely wrapped up in the war and civil rights. A few other issues. The teachings thing was just a little bit passe in any event. And so we did an abrupt switch, changed it from an environmental teacher and into earth day. Speaker 2: 01:07 Hey says the plan was to have a national day of awareness, but allow local environmental groups to focus on the issues that mattered most to their communities Speaker 3: 01:17 from inner city groups that were trying to stop freeways from plowing through their vibrant neighborhoods to people in Santa Barbara for testing the oil spill previous year and people in Cleveland concerned about the Cuyahoga repeatedly catching on fire. Folks who are stirred up by Rachel Carson, silent spring and the disappearance of words that an American bald Eagle being on the endangered species list. Uh, just everything from peeling lead paint off of walls and people in poor neighborhoods, children in coordinate hoods, getting brain damage to air pollution were walking down the streets of Los Angeles with his leg smoking two packs of cigarettes a day just from reading and on and on and on. Except they didn't think that they had much to do with one another. And what the purpose of birthday was was to take all of these myriad strands and weave them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism Speaker 2: 02:12 in San Diego. There were events at SDSU and UCFD, but they weren't welcomed by everyone at UCFD. Someone called the scheduled speaker and told him his speech was canceled according to a newspaper story from that day. Then there was a bomb threat that paused the festivities. Reaction among students was of general distaste and impatience. The story reads, one student said it was a pathetic infantile gesture at SDSU. The speaker was democratic Congressman John Tunney, who went on to become a us Senator. He said that very soon engineers would build a smog free car engine and warned about the dangers of storing nuclear waste. One that seems alarmingly prophetic. The Wells will contain only a 50 year accumulation. He said, what will happen after 50 years? Speaker 4: 03:08 I was 12 and so, uh, we had a post that, a poster contest. I don't think I won, but I definitely remember I have a visual recollection of carrying a poster through the school. Speaker 2: 03:22 Carolyn Chase was at that first earth day celebration. It clearly had an impact on her. Now she's the organizer of San Diego's earth fair, which except for this year, is held annually at Balbo park. Speaker 4: 03:36 What I was looking for, you know, in 1970 I was a kid at school and 1990, I was looking for how to volunteer for a local conservation group. And I think that's the purpose of earth day, honestly, is to get people started because it's like one stop shopping Speaker 2: 03:54 that first earth day also launched. The recycling movement says Rick Anthony, who was at the first one in San Diego. Speaker 3: 04:01 It wasn't an awakening for sure. And so earth day was, uh, the beginning of a trend, right? Speaker 2: 04:06 Using earth days, momentum. He organized recycling programs at many local colleges and universities. Speaker 3: 04:13 It was a, we picked up on it. We did, that's why recycling was a great issue on our campus. Speaker 2: 04:19 Hayes, the original organizer says, when he looks at where the country was before 1970 and the goals of that first earth day, Speaker 3: 04:27 they were achieved in the first 10 years for a period we were almost unstoppable. I mean, the clean air act back in 1970, which was the first big triumph, uh, was opposed vigorously by the automobile industry. It was opposed by the coal industry, the oil industry, the electric utility industry, the steel industry, and it passed the U S Senate unanimously on a voice vote. I passed the house of representatives with one dissenting vote. I mean, it was just a remarkable sea-change. A piece of legislation that was inconceivable in 1969 was absolutely unstoppable. By the end of 1970 Speaker 2: 05:06 the 1970s also produced the clean water act, endangered species act and toxic substances control act, but then he says the country spent the next 40 years spinning its wheels. The plan for this year is earth day was an emphatic statement about climate change heard around the world, but then came the Corona virus, Speaker 3: 05:29 a billion people on the streets of the planet demanding that this year be the inflection point that next year we start reducing the amount of greenhouse gas we produced until it gets down to zero. We've, we've had a 80 paid staff and thousands of volunteers working for around the world for the last two years trying to build these huge crowd demonstrations. I mean, when it's 750,000 people on the national mall in Washington DC, uh, it's not illegal to have more than 10 nights. It's just, uh, so all of the stuff that we were aspiring to do, uh, is now illegal. Instead, they'll have streaming events and focus on the November presidential election. He says the Corona virus is an imperfect analogy to climate change, but there are lessons to be learned. I'm hoping that it turns out to be true, but humans, like literally all other animals, I'm not just an individual desire to survive, which has led itself to Darwinian evolution, but a willingness to sacrifice for the species that we really do not want to see past overshoots and collapses of humanity. And out of that instinctive desire to preserve ourselves, we will come up with enough intelligence to address the major threats of our era. I mean, there's absolutely nothing that is happening in climate change that is not the result of concrete policy decisions and economic decisions and technical choices that humans have made. We can make very different choices. We have the option to build a benign, sustainable, equitable, resilient, uh, society world and uh, hopefully we will be doing that. Claire Treg assert KPBS news Speaker 1: 07:21 celebrating earth day can be as simple as just getting out to enjoy the natural world around us by planting a tree or picking up litter. We asked you, our listeners to tell us how you'll be commemorating earth day while social distancing. Here are some of your responses. Speaker 5: 07:42 [inaudible] good morning. This is Margaret pills and happy birthday to you. On the first birthday in 1970, I had collected a wheelbarrow of illiterate and garbage from the country roads ran past my New York state home. I now live in a suburban community in San Diego with the amounts of rain over the last week, the garden is abundant with growth on the driveway. I have set out a variety of young call, a happy birthday sign passes by to save a life and enjoy what earth day has provided. Thank you. [inaudible] this is Steve [inaudible]. I'm leaving a message about the earth day situation. I've always appalled at the hypocrisy of the hordes of people who'd be sending on the park to trample through shrub beds and otherwise mindlessly abused the hotel control assets of the park to celebrate birthday. So I'll spend her birthday this year rejoicing over the park, mostly devoid of people. [inaudible] hi, Speaker 6: 08:47 this is Dennis [inaudible]. I'm celebrating earth day by riding my bike work, almond and a potential employee. I'm still going into the office, Speaker 5: 08:56 but um, yeah, I'm going to ride my bike into work on Wednesday. Hi, this is sunny brace calling from Lakeside and I wanted to let you know what I'm going to be doing on earth day. Um, as a matter of fact, pretty much every day now. And that's appreciating nature. It's getting out. It's being aware of the sounds and the sights and the smells. And being away from people is not a bad thing. Thank you KPBS for being there radio on television. We love you. Bye.

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Organizers said many of the goals laid out at the first Earth Day 1970 were achieved in 10 years. They say recent decades have featured lots of studies but little action.
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