Opinion: Green Light 

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Earth Day 1970 and 2024 

By Tom Osborne

Earth Day. It’s my favorite societal event. Even though it’s not a government-sanctioned national holiday, it should be. What other single event is celebrated globally in 192 countries by people of diverse faiths, ethnicities and customs?

Earth Day observances have remained true to its founders’ vision. The event is unifying rather than divisive and reminds us of the sacredness of our blue and white planetary orb spinning in space that is home to virtually all life, all poetry, all art, all that makes us human and getting up each morning worthwhile.   

On April 22, 2024, Earth Day will be fifty-four years old. On that day in 1970, some twenty million Americans, the largest assemblage of demonstrators in U.S. history, celebrated the first Earth Day. Students at 1,500 colleges and 10,000 schools from coast to coast participated in more than 12,000 separate Earth Day events.   

Assuredly, this was not a spontaneous jubilation. The idea of staging such an epic event was conceived by the late Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson shortly after he spoke on the campus of UC Santa Barbara in the wake of the disastrous 1969 offshore oil spill that blackened beaches and killed marine life along a thirty-five-mile stretch of Santa Barbara’s scenic coast. On the campus, Nelson had witnessed an anti-Vietnam War “teach-in,” wherein students and professors spoke out against U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia. Aboard his flight from Santa Barbara to UC Berkeley, where he was next scheduled to speak, Nelson hit on the idea of holding environmental teach-ins on campuses across America. On the Berkeley campus, he broached his idea to numerous students for feedback. They liked the idea and encouraged him to act on it.  

Nelson, a Democrat, wisely decided that such an environmental event really needed to be bipartisan to be optimally effective. He reached out to California Republican Congressman Paul “Pete” McCloskey, who enthusiastically joined with the Wisconsin Senator. The two persuaded Denis Hayes, a recent Stanford graduate, to head up a nationwide youth mobilization effort for the event. Hayes proved to be a brilliant organizer, and the success of the first Earth Day was evidence of that. Later, he became a lawyer and executive director of the Sierra Club, arguably the nation’s largest and most influential environmental organization. 

As a Californian, naturally I’m proud of the Golden State’s role in providing a spatial and conceptual context for what was to become an annual Earth Day celebration and teach-in. This year, across our state and the world, Earth Day events galore are scheduled. Always needed, Earth Day events are more critical now than ever. Governments and people are experiencing the ravages of climate change-related mega-wildfires, polluted air from those fires and factories, the bleaching of coral reefs, epic floods, sea level rise from the melting polar ice sheets, life-threatening heat domes, species die-offs, mass human migrations, and more.   

All these extreme weather and related events provide the curriculum for this year’s Earth Day teach-ins and conversations about what actions need to be taken now, especially by us who live in the developed world. We’re the ones positioned to lead the transition away from the age of planet-heating fossil fuels into a new dispensation of renewable, clean energy.   

This focus on a needed energy transition and related environmental matters will be explored at Laguna Beach’s Earth Day celebration on April 22 at Rivian South Coast Theater. Doors open at 6 p.m. Sponsored by Laguna Canyon Conservancy, this event is free and open to the public; to attend, you must register in advance at Rivian events: events.rivian.com/earthdaylaguna. Let’s dedicate this Laguna event to our children and grandchildren, who count on us to take the prompt actions necessary to provide them with a livable environment. 

Tom Osborne co-leads, with his wife Ginger, the Laguna chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonprofit civic sector organization that advocates for putting a price on carbon emissions and returning the proceeds to taxpayers. [email protected] 

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