Earth Day: Looking Back and Looking Forward

As the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day approaches, the environmentally-minded are reflecting on the past, something we rarely have time to do when every new issue seems like the most important, the most time-sensitive, the one that will certainly lead to a torrent of unforeseen problems if not nipped immediately in the proverbial bud. Given this chance to take stock, it's heartening to recognize the legacy of a devoted, activist conservation movement. But looking back also brings up questions about the path we're on. Have we even come close to fulfilling promises made on the original Earth Day?

Click here for a May 1970 article from Earth Day originator Senator Gaylord Nelson's newsletter.

The May 1970 Gaylord Nelson Newsletter is full of hope and a sense of determination to turn over a new leaf for the environment. But it is sobering to recognize an all-too familiar rhetoric, a fed-up "this is it"attitude we continue to hear today, obviously fallen short of its bold intentions. For example, look at this passage:

"Scientists, ecologists, environmentalists, educators and political leaders warned darkly before massive gatherings and small meetings that time was running out for the world and that all men had a responsibility to themselves and to leave a legacy of life for their children."

Sound familiar? Environmentalists today often present the climate crisis as a moral issue, attempting to bring even the most obstinate skeptics on board. If you don't see the utility in acting now, the argument goes, then at least do something to make the world safe for your grandchildren. But this may not be the most effective approach. Author Bill McKibben, recently interviewed on The Leonard Lopate Show, says the "for our grandchildren" approach actually just postpones work that needed to be done years ago. If the looming threats to our planet won't take affect for another two generations, subscribers to this mode of thinking can more easily forget them.

Check out McKibben's blog and global environmental activist network at

Click here for Earth Day activities going on in your area, or for information on a climate rally going on this Sunday in D.C.

Or check out Edward Hoagland's beautiful paean to a life well-lived in this month's issue of Harper's magazine, in which he regrets having to leave the planet while expressing a sense of foreboding as he looks at what lies ahead.

Hoagland writes:

Bees, bats, amphibians, forest primates, meadow birds, pelagic fish, coral, and polar animals, at risk or worse—the upending of ecology, disequilibrium of meteorology and oceanography, desertification, extinctions at four thousand times paleontological rates, are not the sort of scale of change old grumps have previously objected to. Nature is being defenestrated in a fast-track snuffing out of half of Creation.


Amazingly late in the game, popes, presidents, and pundits began to tell us we were “stewards” of the earth. Earlier, mostly marginal or maverick figures had cared to touch on the topic, apart from a handful of well-heeled conservation charities that oversaw the status quo in our national parks, or of poster-suitable megafauna here and there... I’ve found the speed of alteration, the totality of havoc and sprawl accompanying the pole-axing of nature, undreamt of.

Hoagland's Last call: Old age and the end of nature, if read well, could serve as the environmentalists' new rallying cry. Yes, we need to treat the planet well for our grandchildren, but they are not the only ones we're working for. In 2050, when those of us who are still around have passed through the next forty Earth Days, wouldn't it be nice to look back with accomplishment, as well as forward with peace of mind?