by Kaelin Ferland '23 on April 20, 2023
The 1960s was a critical decade for environmental policy in the United States, serving as the first time politicians began to recognize how humans play a large role in environmental destruction. Fortunately, this led to important policy changes and legislation to protect our planet. However, this relationship between human activity and ecological degradation was something already well-known among environmentalists prior to the 1960s.
Environmentalists including Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Gaylord Nelson were essential figures in the environmental movement. Carson’s Silent Spring is arguably one of the most influential texts of the movement. Published in 1962, it revealed the dangers of D.D.T. and pesticide use on both human and wildlife health, accusing chemical companies of hiding these dangerous side effects from the public. The publication resulted in the ban of D.D.T. across the country. With his Sand County Almanac published in 1949, Leopold introduced the term “land ethic” for the first time, an idea that humans need to coexist with nature, rather than continue to dominate and exploit it. This message is still prevalent today, as decades later, it seems as though we still have yet to adopt such a vision.
In 1969, environmentalist and Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed the idea for Earth Day, and in 1970, it was celebrated for the first time on April 22. Earth Day was a turning point for environmental awareness and advocacy in the U.S. The same year in 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was formed, as well as the National Environmental Education Act and the Clean Air Act. In the next three years, the U.S. would also go on to establish the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. The first Earth Day was an environmental breakthrough, resulting in some of the most important environmental legislation we have to date.
Still, just over 50 years later, it seems as though we have forgotten the importance of Earth Day and what it means as we continue to act in unsustainable ways that harm our planet. Every year, over one billion people in over 193 countries celebrate Earth Day. Imagine how much of an impact we could make if this many people treated every day like Earth Day.
From what the March 2023 I.P.C.C. report explains, it’s clear that we need people advocating for environmental change year-round. According to the report, we have already caused our planet to warm an additional 1.1 degrees Celsius, dangerously nearing the 1.5 degrees Celsius scientists constantly warn is the tipping point.
What happens if temperatures increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius? In terms of biodiversity, 14 percent of species could be threatened with extinction, and a loss of up to 90 percent of coral reefs is also expected. Additionally, 950 million people could start experiencing drought as well as extreme temperatures, with 45–58 days of the year likely to surpass 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Flooding is also expected to affect 24 percent more people with this increase.
We need to change our habits every day of the year, not just on Earth Day. We cannot combat climate change and other environmental issues by reflecting on our lifestyles and advocating for the planet only one day a year. It’s our responsibility to not only make sustainable choices each day but to push for environmental policy that is crucial for mitigating climate change. If we want to live on a planet that is equitable, sustainable, just, and habitable, this is something we have to do all year.