50 years after its debut, a UB professor explores the 'Genius of Earth Day'

Apr 22, 2020

Today, the University at Buffalo will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the annual event calling attention to environmental protection, by announcing its new Climate Action Plan. Meanwhile, a UB professor is releasing an updated audio version of a book he first published seven years ago, about the history and "genius" of the original Earth Day.

Adam Rome, a professor of environment and sustainability, authored the 2013 book "The Genius of Earth Day" and, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the first event, has updated it in audio form. It was released Tuesday on Audible.

UB professor Adam Rome, author of "the Genius of Earth Day."
Credit University at Buffalo/buffalo.edu

The seeds of Earth Day were planted years before by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin.

"He had been in the Senate since 1963. When he went to Washington after being Governor of Wisconsin, he thought what was then called conservation was the great domestic challenge for the country, that we were destroying our environment, our air, our water, our soil," Rome said. "And no one was really doing enough about it."

Environment was a mixed bag in the 1960s. The Clean Air Act had been around since 1963, but years later came the notorious burning Cuyahoga River in Ohio. Nelson's efforts to make environmental protection a national priority were failing to catch on, until he noticed how opponents of the Vietnam War were able to grow an audience on college campuses. He observed their strategy, by hosting discussions and debates outside the normal classroom settings through teach-ins.

"He thought that had really been empowering. It had really helped spur activism. And he thought something similar could be done on the environment," Rome said. "So he promised late in the summer of 1969 that he would organize a nationwide environmental teach-in on the environment. And that became the first Earth Day in April 1970."

Organization began the prior fall, first with a personal announcement during a speaking engagement in Seattle, followed by pitches to the newsrooms of the New York Times, Newsweek and Time. Gaining media attention then gained calls of interest. So much so, Rome explained, that Nelson's office could no longer handle the volume of calls. He formed a not-for-profit group that handled the calls and publicity, and hired young activists who had worked previously on issues including the Vietnam War, civil rights and anti-poverty.

The first Earth Day, according to Rome, drew an estimated 10,000 schools, 1,500 colleges and universities and hundreds of community organizations, all of whom hosted some form of environmental awareness event.

"Politicians took notice. Nothing like this had ever happened. It was obvious that people really cared more than anyone had known about clean air and clean water," Rome said. "And by the end of the year, the US finally had an Environmental Protection Agency and finally had a (extended) Clean Air Act. Then in the early 70s, we get a Clean Water Act and Drinking Water Act and acts to deal with garbage and hazardous waste and endangered species."

The Clean Air Act was amended again in 1977 and 1990. The original Earth Day, Rome told WBFO, also gave birth to a civilian and commercial environmental culture which still exists today.

"It also helped create what I call an eco-infrastructure: environmental beats in the media, environmental studies programs in colleges and universities, lobbying groups in Washington and in state capitals across the country," he said. "Publishers put out hundreds and hundreds of environmental books. Many communities started to have an Ecology Center, as it was called, and that's often where recycling started in the community.

"And then the one other lasting influence that really surprised me, when I did the book, was tens of thousands of people were inspired by Earth Day to devote their lives to the environmental cause. Many of them became pioneers and creating new kinds of environmental careers. I ended up talking to a lot of people, 40 years later, who were still at it, and in all kinds of arenas. That was a powerful lasting legacy that came. It didn't matter whether the media attention came and went. That equal infrastructure and all those people ensured that the cause survived and grew stronger."

Fifty years later, climate change is at the forefront of the environmental conversation. Rome says the government will need to be involved, though he acknowledges the topic is become politically divisive.

But it wasn't always this way. Rome notes that many environmental champions in the 1970s were Republicans. And today, there are environmental advocates on both sides of the political spectrum. While most activists are reputed to lean left of center, there is a movement of conservatives who also seek to prevent adverse climate change. The latter contends the free market could and should have the ability to lead the change.

Rome pointed to one Republican in particular, former South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis, who previously denied climate change but, at the urging of his son and after traveling to see evidence for himself, has become an activist through his organization RepublicEn

"He took trips to Antarctica, into the Great Coral Reef in Australia. And he began to see this was real, and it was serious," Rome said. "And he and he eventually decided he had to do something about it. But it was his son that really pushed him to do that. So hopefully, some of these young Republicans can really have a really outsized influence in creating not only in their own generation, but among older folks, some awareness that this really is a bipartisan challenge that we got to unite and deal with it together."

Rome says just as Senator Nelson relied on young activists to give birth to Earth Day 50 years ago, young people today will be important to keeping its mission alive.

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