A protestor holds a sign that says "Climate Justice Now!"

Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall.

We’ve celebrated Earth Day in the United States for more than 50 years. Today, we’re taking a look at what made the first Earth Day in 1970 such a big deal, and whether the modern version needs a reboot. 

We had Janek Schaller and Will Malloy from our Possibly team tackle this question.

Janek Schaller: How’s it going, Megan?

Will Malloy: Happy belated Earth Day!

Megan Hall: Thank you! So, set the scene for us: what did the first Earth Day look like?

Will Malloy: It was huge! 20 million Americans participated in more than 10,000 events from New York City to small-towns in Kansas.

Megan Hall: Wow! How did this happen?

Janek Schaller: Believe it or not, Earth Day 1970 was set in motion by a US senator, Gaylord Nelson. He wanted to build a new environmental movement that used tactics that were similar to the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s.

Megan Hall: A US senator leading a grassroots campaign? That seems like the opposite of grassroots… 

Janek Schaller: Right. Senator Nelson knew that, so he hired a group of young organizers to coordinate the event. 

Will Malloy: These organizers decided to have every community design their own Earth Day programming around the environmental issues that mattered the most to them.

Megan Hall: So there was no single set of demands?

Janek Schaller: That’s right! The national organizers did put a lot of effort into publicizing Earth Day, but they stopped short of telling people what to do.

Adam Rome: “A lot of people worked out their own theory of change, and then acted on it.”

Janek Schaller: That’s Professor Adam Rome, a historian of environmental movements. He says, the first Earth Day was special because…

Adam Rome: “It joined the organizing effort of the grassroots with the power of the Washington elite to accomplish more than either the grassroots activists or the Washington elite could have accomplished on their own.”

Will Malloy: That first Earth Day certainly made a big difference – it played an important role in the creation of both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Plus, it motivated millions of people to take action together. 

Janek Schaller: But the movement didn’t include everyone.

Megan Hall: What do you mean?

Janek Schaller: The organizers and participants in the first Earth Day were mostly white, and the topics that received the most attention were those that appealed primarily to white, affluent people.

Will Malloy: Some Black Americans were skeptical of the event. For example, the mayor of Cleveland at the time, Carl B. Stokes – who was Black –questioned whether Earth Day would do anything to reduce rates of poverty and homelessness in his city.

Janek Schaller: In the end, Mayor Stokes did support Earth Day protests against water pollution in Cleveland. His efforts actually helped pave the way for the modern environmental justice movement.

Megan Hall: Got it. How are people working to make Earth Day more inclusive now? 

Janek Schaller: To find out, we talked to Caitlyn Carpenter, a coordinator of the Sunrise Movement hub at Brown University. Sunrise is an environmental justice organization with chapters across the country. 

Will Malloy: To Caitlyn, Earth Day as it is promotes a form of environmentalism that doesn’t push for lasting change.

Caitlyn Carpenter: You’re giving out this like broad concept of, okay, we should care about the Earth. But that can be interpreted in ways that uphold these fundamental structures that are at the root of why we have environmental degradation in the first place.

Will Malloy: This year, Sunrise Brown is working with groups on over 80 college campuses to target those structures by reclaiming Earth Day.

Megan Hall: What does that look like?

Janek Schaller: The group is collaborating with other student organizations and academic departments to create events that encourage students to think about how environmental and social justice issues overlap.

Will Malloy: Their goal is to change the narrative of Earth Day so it focuses on the issues that are most important for people who have been excluded from the environmental movement. 

Here’s Garrett Brand, the other Sunrise coordinator at Brown:

Garrett Brand: “We want there to be a new status quo, where when people think about something environmental, they’re thinking about environmental justice, thinking about getting rid of toxic polluters in Black communities instead of thinking about recycling.”

Janek Schaller: Basically, they believe Earth Day should be repurposed to unite environmental issues with their vision of social justice. 

Megan Hall: That seems like a big rethinking of Earth Day.   

Will Malloy: As you might suspect, it’s not a universally accepted approach. But it is gaining traction with this generation of environmental activists.

Janek Schaller: If you’d like to get involved in reclaiming Earth Day, there’s a good chance that a campus near you has scheduled events for this week. 

Megan Hall: Got it  – thanks, Janek and Will!

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to thepublicsradio.org/possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Possibly is a co-production of Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and The Public’s Radio.

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