The Columbia Journal
P.O. Box 2633 MPO,
Vancouver, British Columbia,
Canada V6B 3W8
Earth Day: Saving the Environment. Saving Ourselves
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
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
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.