The Origins of the Global Awareness of Sustainability

Looking back: The Origins of the Global Awareness of Sustainability

This blog post originally appears on  Kevin Bolland is the Founder of Greenisms and is an amazing storyteller, environmentalist, and lives in sunny Orange, California.  This the first of 2 posts on the history of environmental action in America.  

If I had asked you the question, “What day is Earth Day?” would you know the answer? Well, now you can say you do–April 22 will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day!

First, the interesting part:

On the first official Earth Day in 1970, another major sociopolitical movement was occurring, especially within the United States. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 had recently been enacted by President Nixon, and California released the California Environmental Quality Act not long afterwards. America, and the rest of the world, was becoming more aware of the impacts that we have on our environment. As a society, we were gaining access to the perspective of people who lived farther and farther away from one another, and we were becoming more aware of ourselves.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River, located in a highly industrial area, caught fire due to the quantity of flammable pollutants released into the river by unregulated businesses and sparks from a passing train. This was not the first time that it had happened–in fact, the Cuyahoga River had caught fire at least 12 times before that! To residents, employees, and local businesses, this was neither a common, nor uncommon event. When the rest of the country began to see films and photographs of the event, we began to recognize how we were impacting our environment. This is but one case of similar tragic environmental pollution and destruction in the United States. I could discuss the near extinction of buffalo, or the pollution of Lake Washington, or the dams we built on almost every major river in the country, but I think you get the idea.

So what, some people might say. A river caught fire. A dam was built. A bunch of animals were killed.

Your point might be something like this: Humans have destroyed whole swaths of forests, drained entire rivers, mined mountains, and have polluted nearly every nook and cranny of our world before 1969, right?

Well, yes, and no.

Yes, in the respect that humans have always farmed, mined, and developed our environment to make ourselves comfortable to the maximum extent that we can. That’s not news though.

But the major point I want to make is no, we did not realize quite how significant, how measurable, or how profound our impact on the earth was before this point. Very few “environmental studies” had been performed. This does not mean that we have not appreciated nature before this point, though. We have celebrated the earth for much longer than 50 years. But I want to prove the point that it is only recently that we have truly focused on the sustainability of this entire equation. Our resources are physically limited. That is a fact. Some people knew this before 1970, but not many people knew, or could do anything about it.

Earth Day was all about changing that, and that is why it is such an important note on a global scale. We recognized from one major point of view, that we have significant impacts on the planet. We also recognized at the same time that we could actually do something about it!

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