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16 EPA J. 8 (1990)
The Spirit of the First Earth Day

handle is hein.journals/epajrnl16 and id is 9 raw text is: The Spirit of
the First Earth Day
by Jack Lewis

April 22, 1970, a Wednesday,
was a glorious spring day in
most parts of the country.

n the waning months of the 1960s,
environmental problems were
proliferating like a many-headed hydra,
a monster no one could understand let
alone tame or slay. Rampant air
pollution was linked to disease and
death in New York, Los Angeles, and
elsewhere as noxious fumes, spewed out
by cars and factories, made city life less
and less bearable. In the wake of Rachel
Carson's 1962 best-seller, Silent Spring,
there was widespread concern over
large-scale use of pesticides, often near
densely populated communities. In
addition, huge fish kills were reported
on the Great Lakes, and the media
carried the news that Lake Erie, one of
America's largest bodies of fresh water,
was in its death throes. Ohio had
another jolt when Cleveland's Cuyahoga
River, an artery inundated with oil and
toxic chemicals, burst into flames
by spontaneous combustion.
In a response commensurate with the
problem, an estimated 20 million
Americans gathered together on April
22, 1970, to participate in a
spectacularly well-publicized
environmental demonstration known as
Earth Day. The rallies, teach-ins,
speeches, and publicity gambits almost
all went smoothly, amid a heady and
triumphant atmosphere that was further
enhanced by perfect spring weather. But
the months leading up to Earth Day had
been frantic, and the success of the
event had been unpredictable up to the
very last moment.
Such uncertainty is endemic when
volunteer effort is the driving force
behind any activity, let alone one as
ambitious as Earth Day 1970. Some of
the grassroots activists who coordinated
the work of thousands of Earth Day
volunteers had come to the
environmental cause rather late, after
(Lewis is an Assistant Editor of EPA
Journal.)

cutting their teeth on other political
issues of the 1960s, such as civil rights
and the anti-war movement. Others,
however, had been intensely involved
in environmental causes for many years.
Whatever their background, these
activists were the driving force not only
behind Earth Day, but also behind many
smaller and less publicized
environmental reforms during the
closing months of the 1960s.
The term Breathers' Lobby was
coined by the Wall Street Journal in the
late 1960s to denote one of the most
prominent components of the grassroots
movement: the congeries of anti-air
pollution groups that had sprung up
over the previous decade in urban areas
across the country. GASP in Los
Angeles and Pittsburgh, the
Metropolitan Washington Coalition on
Clean Air, the Delaware Clean Air
Coalition, and other similar groups
started with sweat equity, then qualified
for grants and technical assistance from
the federal government. Groups focusing
on water-quality issues were also
making dramatic inroads: most notably,
the Lake Michigan Federation, and Get
Oil Out in Santa Barbara, California.
The anti-pollution stance of these
groups, after changing the climate of
political opinion at the state and local
level, quickly permeated editorials and
editorial cartoons featured in the
nation's leading newspapers. Even
Broadway picked up the environmental
theme when the smash-hit musical Hair
lampooned air pollution with a
hilarious song called The Air, which
ended in a choking chorus of coughs.
Readers were sampling a range of
provocative books on the environment:
The Whole Earth Catalogue, John Sax's
The Environmental Bill of Rights, Paul
Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, and
Charles Reich's The Greening of
America. Students tuned into the
counterculture were picking up
environmental messages from rock
lyrics.

EPA JOURNAL

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