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Columbia Journal logoVolume Nine, Number Two    April 2004    www.columbiajournal.ca

    Earth Day: Saving the Environment. Saving Ourselves

    Ivan Bulic

    This April 22 will mark the 34th Earth Day. Today, when recycling is an urban mantra, every province has an environment ministry, and high school students all learn about climate change, it is hard to recall how revolutionary Earth Day was more than three decades ago.

    On April 22, 1970, more than 22 million people marched in cities across North America. They were protesting a consumer culture that was polluting the air, fouling the water and contaminating the soil.  In New York, hundreds of thousands shut down Fifth Avenue and massed in Union Square where Hollywood actor Paul Newman and Wisconsin’s Democrat Governor Gaylord Nelson called for the creation of a national agency to protect the environment.

    In Washington, thousands more marched up the Mall to the Capitol to hear Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. They cheered when Dennis Hayes, the 25-year-old president of the Stanford University student union, said,  “We are building a movement which transcends traditional political boundaries. It is a movement that values people more than technology, people more than political boundaries, people more than profit.”

    That first Earth Day was the brainchild of Nelson and Hayes who met at an anti-Vietnam war demo in Berkley. They tapped into a North American counterculture that was flexing its political and demographic muscle. Inner city ghettoes were burning, a Mid-East oil crisis marked the end of cheap energy, the Great Lakes were dying of pollution, and freeway culture was choking America’s cities. Youth were dropping out and turning on to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-changin.

    Largely as a result of Earth Day, President Richard Nixon amalgamated 44 agencies into the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Earth Day also sparked the “ecology movement” in BC. 

    In October 1969, a small group of students and local activists gathered in the Coquitlam home of SFU instructor Derek Mallard. They wanted to stop refinery and chemical plant effluents from polluting Burrard Inlet. They also wanted to stop offshore oil spills, pollution of the Fraser River, clear-cut logging and BC Hydro plans to spray 2-4D under power lines. Mallard called the group The Society for Pollution and Environmental Control. Everyone knew it simply as SPEC.

    Mallard’s aims were moderate. He wanted then BC Premier WAC Bennett to create a ministry of the environment similar to the newly formed US EPA. Others were more radical.

    In the summer of 1970, SPEC director Bill Darnell joined Vancouver Sun columnist Bob Hunter and other peace activists of The Don’t Make A Wave Committee in protesting US nuclear testing in Alaska. Darnell suggested combining environmental and peace issues. He proposed Greenpeace. By the end of the decade, Greenpeace was a world force campaigning against international whaling and nuclear proliferation.

    Over the next three decades, environmentalists diverged and proliferated. By 2003 there were an estimated 350 environmental groups in BC alone. They include international giants Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, as well as tiny neighborhood groups. And their methods vary as widely as the issues they confront.

    Now at the start of the 21st century environmental awareness is widespread. The debate is no longer “If humans are impacting the planet,” but “how much” and “what can we do about it.” This new-found understanding is perhaps the most profound change in humanity’s realization of our place on the planet. Earth Day is a marker of that change.

    Meanwhile Hayes and Nelson’s vision of Earth Day as a unified movement evolved into the Earth Day Network, a lobby that focuses on the “greening” of corporate America.

    On April 22, 1990, the Network organized the first International Earth Day. Two hundred million people in 141 nations marched. The 1990 event is credited with pressuring heads of state to convene the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where climate change and species loss were the main issues. Rio eventually resulted in the 1997 Kyoto Summit on climate change. In Vancouver the Peace Marches of the 1980s morphed into Earth Day.

    Today, Hayes is chairperson of Earth Day Network, a $4 million operation headquartered in Washington, DC. His funders include Office Depot, Starbucks, Microsoft and the Conrad Hilton Foundation.  His International Council boasts luminaries such as chimp researcher Jane Goodall, Queen Noor of Jordan, Robert Kennedy Jr., Vandana Shiva, Australian Green Party Senator Bob Brown and Canada’s Dr David Suzuki and Maurice Strong.

    Earth Day Canada is the Network’s Canadian arm. Based in Toronto, its funders include Alberta oil sands giant Suncor, automaker Toyota, the Bank of Montreal, Sony Corporation and shopping mall developer Cadillac Fairview. Earth Day Canada also gets funds from Vancouver outdoor clothing maker Mountain Equipment Co-op, the Canadian Auto Workers union and Environment Canada.

    Earth Day Canada works with provincial and local institutions on tree planting, community clean-up, eco field trips, nature walks, bike days and local Eco-Festivals. Some cities such as Victoria still hold Earth Day marches that attract up to 5,000 people.

    A wit once said, “It’s easier to green a red, than it is to red a green.”  There is some truth in that. Environmental activism traces its roots to 19th century struggles for peace and social justice. But in a time when multi-nationals are competing over who is “greener,” the shading is rapidly blurring.

    The challenge this Earth Day is no longer just cleaning up the environment. The task is learning how to exist on a finite planet where we are the environment.

    Ivan Bulic is a freelance journalist, environmental researcher and activist and a regular contributor to the Columbia Journal.

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