Remembering the first Earth Day in 1970

While discussing the current “Heat Apocalypse” currently sweeping our planet with my younger colleagues, I shared that I’m old enough to remember exactly where I was and what we talked about on the very first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Looking back reminded me of the collaboration and successes once achieved between the Republicans and Democrats on climate action over fifty years ago.

Even before the first Earth Day, there was a lot of optimism across all political parties to protect the environment in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, in part because of the overwhelming public support and recognition that the planet was falling into serious disrepair. California was at the forefront of the environmental movement, but certainly wasn’t alone among the American states.

I find it quite strange to see what’s happening today and then look back at Earth Day 1970 and all of the bi-partisan support of federal and state legislation in the 1970s that set in motion the laws protecting the environment. Yes – both Republicans and Democrats worked tirelessly together to pass hallmark environmental legislation. 

As much as America’s youth in the 1970s were protesting “the man” on so many fronts, it’s seemed quite normal to see all the good that was passed by Democrats and Republicans, then signed into law by a very supportive and once popular Republican president, Richard Nixon, and his successor, Gerald Ford in the 1970s:

  • National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 was one of the first laws that established the legislative framework for protecting the environment 
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed in December 1970 after President Nixon submitted a plan to Congress calling for the creation of the agency
  • The Clean Air Act Extension, written by Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie and signed into law by President Nixon in 1970 was arguably the most significant air pollution control bill in American history.
  • Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 was the first to protect marine mammals such as dolphins, whales, seals, walruses, manatees, sea otters and polar bears. 
  • The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 was a turning pointing in the effort to protect the nation’s lakes, streams, rivers, wetlands, and other bodies of water. 
  • The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was created to protect species in danger of extinction as a result of human activity.

Unfortunately, that the march towards our current state of noticeable climate change is deeply disappointing over fifty years later. America’s apparent political stalemate on climate change over the past decade is just astonishing, but perhaps not unexpected.

It’s amazing what problems can be tackled and what can be achieved when we work together. Can we do it again? It seems impossible today, but wouldn’t it be nice.