Earth Day, then and now

Thousands of people jam a quadrangle at Independence Mall in Philadelphia during Earth Day activities in 1970. Photo: NBC News.Thousands of people jam a quadrangle at Independence Mall in Philadelphia during Earth Day activities in 1970. Photo: NBC News.

Many of today’s landscape professionals weren’t yet born when the first Earth Day was commemorated on April 22, 1970. Forty-five years ago, the price of gallon of gas was $.36, and the average cost of a new home was $23,450. Richard Nixon was serving as the 37th President of the United States (he would become the first President to resign four years later), and in December of that year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created.

At the first Earth Day celebration, 10,000 people gathered at the Washington Monument for a concert headlined by Pete Seeger. Last Saturday, tens of thousands listened to Gwen Stefani and Mary J. Blige at the National Mall to kick off Earth Day 2015, which has become a global event with more than 1 billion participants from 192 countries. “It is now the largest secular event in the world,” Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network, told NBC News. “Is Earth Day still relevant? I think so.”

The purpose of the original Earth Day, founded by then United States Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin, was to draw attention to the pollution of America’s land, air and water. In the past 45 years, progress has been made:

  • Air:The EPA says aggregate emissions of six major air pollutants have dropped more than 60 percent since 1980.
  • Water: Only about one-third of American water was safe for swimming or fishing before the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Today, that proportion has risen to about two-thirds.
  • Land: Tens of billions of dollars have been spent since 1980 under the EPA Superfund program to clean up hazardous waste sites (although the cost has become increasingly controversial in recent years).
  • Species: The bald eagle has become a poster child for the environmental protections added by 1972’s restrictions on DDT pesticide use and 1973’s Endangered Species Act.
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