Earth Day Birthdays

This April 22 marks 49 years since the first Earth Day. That gives us a year before Earth Day turns a half-century old — ample time to plan a party for the local guy who made it an annual event.

Photo by John Hession

For most of my early life, April 22 only signified one thing to me: my little sister’s birthday, which frankly didn’t have that much impact back then beyond requiring me to sing along when mom brought out her cake. In 1970, when I was just turning 18, the date took on new significance when it was made into the first-ever Earth Day.

It was one of those “ideas whose time has come.” Rachel Carson’s 1962 “Silent Spring” had already awakened Americans to the likelihood that modern agribusiness and pesticides were wreaking havoc on the natural world. The Vietnam War had mobilized and politicized an entire generation of young people and the quickening pace of science and technology was just starting to alarm us with the potential of something going dreadfully wrong as we barreled into a mysterious future.

In 1966, visionary writer and editor Stewart Brand (an alumnus of Phillips Exeter Academy) lobbied NASA to release a satellite image of the whole planet Earth — something never before seen by the common Earthling. When he succeeded, he used that photo on the cover of his seminal “Whole Earth Catalog” that became a handbook for a variety of movements for more organic and sustainable lives.

The first Earth Day in 1970, the brainchild of Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson, was viewed as a teaching moment, a chance to rally all those early environmental strands into an event that would get everyone’s attention and “finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda,” said Nelson.

It worked. Millions marched or held rallies and education programs across the US. The Environmental Protection Agency was established by executive order of President Richard Nixon that same year. Earth Day worked so well, in fact, that the next one was scheduled for a decade later, April 22 in 1980.

That once-a-decade pattern held until the 1990 celebration, when an organizer called up Bruce Anderson, a solar power expert living in Harrisville, to ask him to head up plans for New Hampshire’s celebration. Anderson agreed, but couldn’t believe there was no movement to make it an annual event. Anderson reached out to Sen. Nelson and soon the two of them were leading Earth Day USA, an organization charged with making Earth Day a yearly thing and taking it worldwide, mobilizing hundreds of millions and lifting environmental issues onto the global stage.

Anderson eventually left the Earth Day organization to continue his breakthrough work in solar energy in Virginia. To my knowledge, the most written about his pivotal role in the expansion of Earth Day was an article in this magazine by former managing editor Barbara Coles back in 2015.

With current environmental alarms about climate change, the death of insect populations, and plastic pollution clogging the oceans, the mission of Earth Day is rightly focused on securing the future, not honoring the past, but maybe for next year’s celebration we should at least invite Anderson up to ride in a solar-powered car in whatever Earth Day events Harrisville has planned for 2020.

For efficiency’s sake, I should mention one other significant April 22 birthday: that of my brother-in-law, Greg, himself a terrific writer with New Hampshire roots now living in Georgia. You might think I’m conserving scant natural resources by wishing both him and my dear sister, Candy, a very happy Earth, uh, I mean “birth” day this way, but when it comes to saving the planet, every little bit helps.

Categories: Editor’s Note