Reflections on the First Earth Day, 51 Years Later

by Harvey Michaels, lecturer at MIT Sloan and ESI research collaborator

I was among the many participating in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 who had their lives changed by the experience. As a senior in high school, my class had grown up through the 1960’s turmoil of assassinations, marches, and riots; amid conflicts of war and justice, defiance and mistrust between generations. There was activism and some successes, but still violent and deadly clashes, and the draft.

And during all this, in school we read Silent Spring[1];  learned of rivers on fire from chemical waste; cities in decline from smog; and poisons in our food, water, and air.  We sang about how we paved paradise, and put up parking lots[2]. With this as backdrop, we joined in the first Earth Day as a teach-in and protest of what we saw around us. A decentralized grassroots movement encouraged by Sen. Gaylord Nelson (WI) and his student (HKS) organizer Denis Hayes, in the days before social media, shockingly brought out over 20 million people. The voices were loud, the dissenters were quiet or behind-the-scenes, great music was everywhere, and it was a beautiful day in most places with just a tinge of hope to it.

I was among five students in my high school class to give graduation remarks shortly afterwards, and we split up the things to complain about—my talk on environment was probably the most hopeful, noting that Earth Day left us with resolve as the surprising result, politicians from both parties hopping aboard, and our parents agreed with us for once. And in no time we had new empowering legislation setting up the EPA regulating hazardous wastes, requiring environmental impact statements, and Clean Air and Water Acts requiring mitigation of harmful pollutants.  I came to MIT the next fall, and found inspiration from my faculty in Civil Engineering, Architecture, and Urban Planning as we together learned about the nascent field of environmental studies, and have enjoyed my career and connection with the community that has worked for a better environment in all of the 51 years since 1970, and still do.

There is a long story to the 51 years since the first Earth Day, and many chapters are yet to be written. But the recurring theme is that with activism, we move forward; and when activism grows quiet, we stop. Activism follows from educating ourselves about unsustainable and unhealthy habits we’ve developed: our informed activism brought progress to recycling, resulted in more options for sustainable and healthy food, advanced our energy efficiency and clean energy, and continues now to press us towards a timely and sufficient response to the climate emergency.

In a time now when in-person marching is difficult due to COVID, we can still make known what we care about. Our voices can still be heard when we attend events virtually, write to our leaders and representatives, make good choices in how we consume, and who we vote for.  And our voices, including and especially young voices, can make a big difference —you can look at what is happening right now in local, state, federal, and worldwide governing bodies for clear evidence of that. The recent wave of activism is a very necessary ingredient for our progress and having opportunities to participate professionally and personally in environmental solutions, but the trend is fragile and requires constant nurture. This is the lesson I learned from my first Earth Day, and it still holds true today.


[1] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (book and New Yorker articles), 1962

[2] Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi (song), 1970