Memories of Earth Days Past

Memories of Earth Days Past

An estimated 20 million Americans marked the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Born during a period of political and social awakening, the event was heralded with rallies, teach-ins, community and park cleanups, and activities staged by students from grade school to grad school.

Today, the event is international and solidly mainstream as witnessed by the many companies launching corporate green initiatives in honor of Earth Day -- and sponsoring tree plantings, recycling drives and educational programs for their employees, their communities, their clients and potential customers.

To mark the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, asked thought-leaders in business and at NGOs to share their recollections of the first Earth Day and Earth Day 1990. That's when, as Executive Editor Joel Makower writes in "Strategies for the Green Economy," "the world (or at least some of it) awakened to the significant environmental challenges we faced" and some of the larger consumer product companies were just "dipping their corporate toes into the green waters."

Some of the people who responded to our query have vivid memories of both Earth Day milestones; others, just one. And one person, author and corporate and environmental strategist Bruce Piasecki, recalled both as well as providing his vision of Earth Day 2050.

Denis Hayes, who was a Harvard Law School student when he served as the national coordinator of the first Earth Day and is international chair of Earth Day 2010, writes about his reminiscences and the need for strong climate policy in a post shared with GreenBiz yesterday. His call for the next phase of environmental action appears tomorrow.

Here are other remembrances of Earth Days past:

Glenn PrickettGlenn Prickett, Chief External Affairs Officer, The Nature Conservancy

The big contrast between 1990 Earth Day and today is that on the one hand we saw then more of a true political demonstration and movement than we will probably see this year. I don’t want to understate what will happen [today]. The issue was fresh in 1990, a reawakening after 20 years, there was a freshness and innocence around it; big energy around climate change -- we called it global warming then -- rainforest, etc.

What’s different today is that we’ve now finally gotten the issue established, not only in the political space, but in the business space more importantly. We’ve got CEOs who think strategically about the environment and how they can use their [companies' leverage] to achieve environmental benefits that are also business benefits. The frustrating piece of it is that we’ve taken 20 years -- if not 40 -- to get there, but we seem to be ready as a society to confront these problems.

Jeffrey Hollender, Chief Inspired Protagonist and Co-Founder, Seventh Generation

In 1970, I remember it was a beautiful day in Central Park. I was 16, and I felt great. Lots of countercultural revolution was in the air and an environmental paradigm shift seemed as possible as everything else seemed in those heady days. It was just another bit of consciousness-raising. In 1990, I was so consumed with marketing the company to take advantage of the big 20th anniversary wave of environmental fervor that it’s all a blur.

Tensie Whelan, President, Rainforest Alliance

I was an elementary student [in 1970] and my school organized a great cleanup in Greenwich Village to commemorate the day. The city -- which was particularly dirty, back then -- was really buzzing with excitement. There was a general feeling of possibility and jubilation -- and a realization that it was our responsibility to keep our planet healthy.

[In 1990] I was working for the National Audubon Society and already deeply involved in the environmental movement. We hosted a booth to engage and educate people in honor of Earth Day. I recall a lot of really positive energy and excitement -- both at our booth and around the city.

Bob Langert,  Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility, McDonald’s Corporation

I remember the first Earth Day festivities in 1970.  As a youngster growing up on the south side of Chicago, I also identified with the need for it.

After all, we couldn’t swim in Lake Michigan because too many dead fish were washing up on the beaches. Smokestacks spat out pollution that painted the skies gray and black. The environmental issues were personal because you could see and smell it, and it came from industry and manufacturing sectors that were the lifeblood of the economy.

Peter Seligmann, Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO, Conservation International

[In 1970, he was a] sophomore at Rutgers University studying wildlife ecology, sitting on lawn with hundreds of other celebrants, listening to speeches about the earth, her fragility and the need to reduce waste, prevent greenhouse effect and protect rainforests -- unfortunately, the lawn was littered with bottles and cups when the events ended.

Renny Perdue, formerly of Earth Share

I remember April 22, 1970, very well. One of my best friends and I were chosen by our high school art teacher to put on an Earth Day celebration to be held a the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ. She and I did a photo essay of pollution and trash around town that was on exhibit. Montclair is beautiful and we had to dig to find photo subjects, but did find abandoned tires and other trash around Tony’s brook that wends through town and other examples. We got musician friends to play at different locations in the museum. I remember that it was a lovely spring day and event was a great success. The environment was not really top of mind back then.

Today, one of my other high school friends has a job with the town as their environmental person -- something not even on the radar back then.

Alison Taylor, Vice President Sustainability -- Americas, Siemens

Earth Day 1970: My memories of Earth Day begin with school plays in elementary school. The theme of Earth Day at that time was raising awareness about the dangers of pollution to kids and animals and plants -- a pretty basic message compared to the intricacies of issues like climate change today.  Kids encouraged their parents to recycle things like newspapers, and this was before our towns and cities had even thought of requiring recycling. The theme worked for me; if I saw someone throw a piece of trash from a car window, I thought I was supposed to say something to him.

My mom was a high school biology teacher, so many weekends were Earth Days for us. I remember collecting plants with my mom for her classes, and picking up trash in the small streams in our area during our weekend hikes. I remember knowing from Mom about Rachel Carson and "Silent Spring," although it was not until college that the book became a part of my science curriculum. Fast forward to my graduation from college, as a biology major, and my mom telling me that I wasn’t so talented at science, but maybe I should think about a new career path she had read about in environmental law.

Earth Day 1990: I graduated from law school and started practice in water and mining law in Colorado.  I moved to Washington, D.C., in April, 1990. Not only was this the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day, but the Clean Air Act was passed by Congress later that year -- a law that has been a part of my career since. The command-and-control environmental laws that were passed in the early 1970s and 1980s were being tested as environmental groups sued corporations as well as the government to enforce them. By now, the public was not just aware but frightened by the dangers of pollution from global disasters like Bhopal. Locally, the horrific reality of cancer clusters in once pristine and promising neighborhoods led to the creation of neighborhood associations demanding information from local industry a la Erin Brockovich. Although public awareness and policy had evolved since the first Earth Day, I remember wondering in 1990 whether actual progress was being achieved.

Wayne S. Balta, Vice President, Corporate Environmental Affairs and Product Safety,

Because I was a kid in 1970 I don’t have a personal recollection of the first Earth Day as it occurred. I do, however, recall what we at IBM were doing twenty years ago at the time of Earth Day in 1990. It may not be apparent today to people who are now at an early point in their careers or whose involvement with the environment is more recent, but Earth Day 1990 was every bit as visible and important as this coming Earth Day 2010. Environmental awareness was every bit as popular.

We at IBM were in the midst of three key events:

  • First, we had just won the World Environment Center’s 1990 Gold Medal for International Corporate Environmental Achievement. It was among the most prestigious awards available to a company regarding this subject (and it remains so today). That was significant because it really motivated our people. It showed them that opinion leaders outside of IBM would acknowledge environmental success as well as shortcomings. It showed that good environmental management makes good business sense. It helped rally our global employees to embark upon a new era of sustainability that has served IBM extremely well.
  • Second, we published IBM’s first annual corporate environmental report at that time of Earth Day 1990. This practice has become a mainstay of our global environmental management system.
  • Third, we created a brand new strategic plan for environmental leadership by IBM. It led to numerous IBM leadership initiatives throughout the 1990s and the years that followed. One was creation of a new corporate staff led by a vice president dedicated to environmental affairs. Another was an update by our CEO to IBM’s 1971 corporate policy regarding the environment. Equally as important was how that 1990 strategic plan caused IBM to institutionalize a global environmental management system that integrated environmental leadership throughout IBM’s business so that it became not just a responsibility for a staff function, but rather a systemic aspect of line business operations.

Tim Mohin, Director of Corporate Responsibility, AMD

After being involved with the environmental movement for my entire career and sentient life (longer than I like to admit), I have seen a few Earth Days come and go (pretty much all of them!). The analogy that springs to mind is Thanksgiving and Christmas: It comes every year and … each year we resolve to extend our acts of charity through the whole year, but usually around March, we get pulled back into our regularly scheduled chaos and giving falls down on the list.

This pattern has been the same for Earth Day: People come forward to express their concern for the planet and take action -- usually in form of a local clean up or similar activity. The difference is that, today, green seems to be sticking.

We are literally bombarded with green messages every day. Recycling is no longer optional in most cities, Al Gore got the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change and most 5th graders can explain how global warming works. Being against greening is tantamount to Luddite status in today's eco-conscious world … to the point where even fair debate on this topic can be overly polarizing.

While Earth Day has been with us for 40 years, the tipping point for eco-consciousness is more recent.Think about using the word "sustainability" in a sentence in 2000 vs. today … Malcolm Gladwell coined the phrase "stickiness" to describe how certain trends get over the tipping point and become part of our collective experience.  I will leave it to others to do the "Gladwell-esque" research to figure out the factors that have made green stick, but it is hard not to argue that being green is now a part of our lives.

Bruce Piasecki, Author, President and Founder, AHC Group

That first Earth Day I was 15, close to my daughter's age now. I recall thinking: "Hell, everyday should be Earth Day!" Many said this to themselves with a kind of defiant anti-establishment relish in the assertion.

On Earth Day 1970, activists spoke about how Lake Erie was dead, that a new Ice Age was coming, and that too many power plants would cause our rivers to boil. Many people felt the exaggerations necessary, as the claims were mostly emotive rather than scientific. In retrospect, those first 20 years went by fast -- and the fights over environmental progress were mostly fought in courts over regulation.

From 1990 to 2010, environmentalism grew up. It was professionalized, you might say. The T-Shirt became a pin-stripe, and environmentalism became mainstream. The social movement in these years also learned strategy. We saw corporate environmentalism emerge. Earth Day started becoming about people, planet and profit. Social response capitalism was born (for more on this concept visit

A Vision for the Future

By 2050, we have far more than 10 billion on earth. Everyone is watching everyone else. Each has an efficient car, home and computer. Our cars, computers and homes are far more energy efficient than when Earth Day began, by a factor of 20 to 30. We have become like Ben Franklin all over again, inventive, efficient, frugal and diplomatic. We compete for sustainability.

CEOs are now saying: "Before it is too late, every person has to redefine 'what is enough' for their families and friends."

Earth Day 80 is evidence of a maturing relationship between corporations and environment as billions of lives are now lived successfully in a carbon and capital constrained world. editors Matthew Wheeland and Tilde Herrera contributed to this article.

Theta Ecology Flag --  Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user WhiteTimberwolf.