Just shy of 16 at the time, I was already a veteran protestor because not only were we in the midst of the Vietnam war, but the United Farm Workers had been supporting the Delano Grape Strike for 5 years and I had marched and picketed for both. Our national innocence had been shattered with the news of the My Lai massacre. This was definitely not my first rodeo, by 14 years of age I had already been called a “commie!”
Still, this was a new kind of protest in every way. I was part of a group of kids who organized a local protest on Earth Day, 1970. It was perhaps the beginning of pop up events! A few of us made a plan to meet outside at noon and all walk off and show our support for Earth Day by cleaning up the neighborhood near our school. We met at the flagpole after some creative organizing and outreach — the key piece was during a mandatory presentation in the auditorium, during which we passed notes telling the other students of our plans.
We handed out garbage bags and marched off to clean up the mean streets of our suburban community. It was a pretty much symbolic effort, since most of the neighbors kept the streets near their homes fairly clean, but we were energized at the end of it and proud of ourselves for being part of what we understood to be a national movement.
The year 1970 saw many significant events — only a couple of weeks later, unarmed students protesting at Kent State were fired upon by the National Guard. Four of those students died, nine others were injured. The grape boycott ended that year as well, although for many years later we would ask one another, is it ok to eat grapes now? We continued to protest the war, but now we also had a new mission — save the planet!
Over the coming years, the result of the efforts of over 20 million Americans, all coming together on that first Earth Day, were profound. By the end of that year, it had led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the passage of a number of environmental laws including the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act. Two years later Congress passed the Clean Water Act and a year after that, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.
What we didn’t understand at the time was that decades later it would become a global movement (in 1990), nor did we understand how desperately important the issue would become.
As we sit in our homes and apartments, we have an opportunity to take this time to again create a vision for our future.
Fifty years later, we are in an existential crisis, the likes of which we could only imagine back in 1970, as we are faced with climate change that could make the planet uninhabitable for our grandchildren — maybe even for ourselves. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused nearly two hundred thousand deaths, and has caused a global pause with schools closed and businesses shuttered around the world. The effects of human activity is becoming more and more apparent as the skies clear, turtles return to empty beaches, animals roam city streets, and the earth itself appears to shake and shudder less as a result of the pause.
As we sit in our homes and apartments, we have an opportunity to take this time to again create a vision for our future. There are digital events happening globally in honor of Earth Day. The events are not using fossil fuels, they are not creating pollution. These activities may seem like a symbolic effort, but just as in 1970, we have the opportunity to come away energized at the end of the day and proud of ourselves for being part of what is now a global movement.
This writing is posted in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day.
 https://www.earthday.org/history/ accessed on Earth Day, 2020