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They Were There as the Modern Environmental Movement Began. As Earth Day Turns 50, They Say the Planet’s Problems Have Gotten Worse

8 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Dorothy Bradley was 23 when she decided to run for the Montana House of Representatives. Her decision was made on the first Earth Day — April 22, 1970 — when she was one of roughly 20 million Americans who participated in some of the day’s 12,000 events raising awareness of environmental problems in society. At a party capping off the day, State Senator Harry Mitchell encouraged her to run for office. What did she have to lose? The young Democrat was only “the wrong age, the wrong sex, and the wrong party,” she recalls him joking.

On doorsteps, she left blue-and-white litter-collection bags with the slogan DOROTHY IS FOR THE BIRDS and the elk, and the bears, and the flowers, and for MONTANA on one side, and her environmental platform on the other side, addressing problems ranging from waste disposal to population growth.

That November, despite her list of “wrongs,” Bradley won her race. She went on to serve eight terms in the Montana House of Representatives. But today, as Earth Day turns 50, she feels the problems listed on that half-century-old litter bag have only grown in scale. “Waste disposal?” she scoffs. “We haven’t figured out how to seriously recycle plastic!”

In the decade that led up to the first Earth Day, the American environmental movement had launched its way into mainstream consciousness. Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring raised awareness of the dangers of pesticides. Images of pollution — the Cuyahoga River in flames, the Santa Barbara oil spill coating animals in goop and Los Angeles residents wearing gas masks because of the smog — had shocked the public. Scientists like ecologist Barry Commoner, whom TIME dubbed the “Paul Revere waking the country to environmental dangers,” spoke about the public-health risk of nuclear testing. Even President Nixon, who took office in 1969, was listening. And then, as now, TIME pinned the future of the environmental movement on a new generation — the wave of young people who, like Dorothy Bradley, had been galvanized by the issue.

In that February 1970 cover story, the magazine billed the upcoming first Earth Day as the “climax” of a series of environmental teach-ins at which roughly 35,000 speakers would bring even more attention to environmental issues and launch a new stage of the environmental movement.

“There was all kinds of environmental activism before Earth Day, but it was fractured,” says Adam Rome, author of The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation and professor at the University at Buffalo. “Earth Day put those people on the same stage, and people really start to have this sense that these seemingly separate problems were part of one bigger problem.”

As the 50th Earth Day approached, TIME spoke to a range of people who were active at this pivotal moment. All agreed that the scale of the problem has gotten much larger, thanks in part to missed opportunities along the way. Here are some of their reflections:

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Richard Ayres, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970:

One missed opportunity was the presidential election of 2000, when the Supreme Court awarded the election to [George W.] Bush. If it had gone the other way, I think there’s no doubt we would have had a serious effort to address climate because [Vice President Al] Gore was one of the first to really understand it… It’s interesting that we’ve had as good luck as we’ve had in reining in the Trump administration through the courts. I think the courts were more pro-environment back in the 1970s and certainly Trump is trying to replace federal judges with more conservative ones, but the good thing, so far at least, is that the courts have been saying to the Trump Administration, you’re not free to just do anything to the law. There has to be a legal basis. You have to show why it makes sense to change a regulation, and you haven’t shown that.

George M. Woodwell, an ecologist who co-founded the Environmental Defense Fund and founded the Woods Hole Research Center:

I went to a meeting in 1970 held in Williamstown, Mass., in preparation for the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment of 1972. Scientists from the then-new National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., were reluctant to anticipate the effects of the conspicuous build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because there were then no data on warming, despite the well-known heat-trapping potential of the gas and the ten-year record from Keeling’s measurements on Mauna Loa. I thought it was a terrible problem and that people ought to be pointing it out, but they would not agree. I decided there wasn’t a point staying, so I left, and the product of that conference was a very weak statement. At that time, the larger scientific community of climatologists was unwilling to say it was a problem, although it was conspicuously a problem.

Arturo Sandoval, who was on the national organizing team for the first Earth Day and is now the director of the Center of Southwest Culture in New Mexico:

Now there’s [environmental] careers, but starting in the ’70s, there wasn’t really. The people who could afford to [work on environmental issues] were people who had deep pockets. If it didn’t work out, they always had options. I was the only person of color on the national organizing staff [for the first Earth Day], and the movement became very East-Coast and West-Coast oriented, very white middle-class and upper-middle-class oriented, and saw no need to broaden the message or the base to working people in the Midwest, African Americans or Chicano communities, because they had so much early success. Latinos [in] the polls value the protection of the planet, but they have no access to existing environmental groups to put that value in action.

JoAnn Tall, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, who won the Goldman Environmental Prize for helping to stop a proposed nuclear testing site on lands sacred to Native Americans in the Black Hills area in the late 1980s.

Back then, we fought against uranium mining and it’s come back to that again. It seems like it’s a cycle. [Native American environmental activism has] evolved tremendously. The difference now is technology we didn’t have. The younger generations of Native Americans are able to go out and coordinate with more like-minded groups because what happens here affects all of us in one way or another. We struggled to connect with Greenpeace back then because we felt at that time they didn’t address some of our concerns. Many people from all over came to Standing Rock [in 2016-2017]. We had some of that, but there weren’t a whole lot of those connections back then. I feel the younger generation is the voice for us on these issues, with climate change. I feel like our voices are being heard more now than ever. We will get through this.

Pete McCloskey, who co-founded Earth Day as a Republican Congressman and was an architect of the now-threatened 1973 Endangered Species Act:

The public had realized by 1970 that with development and progress and a better standard of living, we were polluting the oceans and rivers and land and we were losing wildlife. When I was in college, we had to shut down baseball games and football games because the air pollution was so bad. Then in the ’70s when we passed environmental legislation, we made tremendous strides. For 10 years, until the election of [President Ronald] Reagan, there was this cooperation in environmental [politics]. Then when the Democrats lost power [of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994], and [Newt] Gingrich came in [as House Speaker in 1995], we’ve seen for the last 25 years a resurgence where environmentalists are viewed as interfering with jobs and too many regulations.

These young women in the House [now] are the best thing that’s happened, getting these old goats out of committee leaderships. If we’re going to have the answer to global warming, it will be because the young people rise up.

All agreed that the next generation gives them hope for progress — especially as younger politicians may at least be able to agree that climate change is happening.

“We’re in an incredibly politically divided time, and yet, if you look at the polling data, Republican youth care about climate change,” says Tia Nelson, climate director at the environmental group the Outrider Foundation and daughter of Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson who came up with the idea for Earth Day. Polls also show, among Millennial and Gen Z Americans, greater bipartisan belief that human activity contributes to climate change and less support of increased fossil fuel production.

The question now is whether the COVID-19 pandemic will be another missed opportunity, or an opportunity to leverage work between the public and private sectors and scientists and apply it to the fight to take bolder action on climate change. “We’re in a trial run,” Bradley says, “to see if we can work together.”



Correction, April 22

The original caption on the photo that accompanies this story misstated the date of Earth Day 1970. It was April 22, not April 20.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com