Earth Day: Over the Hill, Still Hot

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, and I'll come clean: It's one of my favorite days of the year. In my hometown, Earth Day was spent picking up trash, planting trees, learning about recycling and getting peace signs painted on my cheeks. One of my favorite T-shirts is from Earth Day in 1993 — and yes, it still fits. In fact, I'm wearing it right now.

  • Earth, as seen by astronauts Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmidt from Apollo 17, December 1972.
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    Earth, as seen by astronauts Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmidt from Apollo 17, December 1972.
    NASA 1/ 
  • A plane flies over a neighborhood as it approaches Logan Airport in Massachusetts, May 1973.
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    A plane flies over a neighborhood as it approaches Logan Airport in Massachusetts, May 1973.
    Michael Philip Manheim/ 
  • Campers in Garner State Park, July 1972.
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    Campers in Garner State Park, July 1972.
    Marc St. Gil/ 
  • An abandoned car sits under a palm tree at Rincon in Puerto Rico, February 1973.
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    An abandoned car sits under a palm tree at Rincon in Puerto Rico, February 1973.
    John Vachon/ 
  • The George Washington Bridge in heavy smog. View toward the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, May 1973.
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    The George Washington Bridge in heavy smog. View toward the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, May 1973.
    Chester Higgins/ 
  • Miners line up to go into the elevator shaft at the Virginia-Pocahontas Coal Co. Mine No. 4 near Richlands, Va. The man at the right wears a red hat to signify that he is a new miner. April 1974.
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    Miners line up to go into the elevator shaft at the Virginia-Pocahontas Coal Co. Mine No. 4 near Richlands, Va. The man at the right wears a red hat to signify that he is a new miner. April 1974.
    Jack Corn/ 
  • The Atlas Chemical Co. belches smoke across pastureland in Marshall, Texas. The plant is referred to as "Old Darky" in the community because black soot from the plant covers everything nearby. June 1972.
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    The Atlas Chemical Co. belches smoke across pastureland in Marshall, Texas. The plant is referred to as "Old Darky" in the community because black soot from the plant covers everything nearby. June 1972.
    Marc St.Gil/ 
  • Interior of graffiti-marked subway car in New York City, May 1973.
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    Interior of graffiti-marked subway car in New York City, May 1973.
    Erik Calonius/ 
  • There is some local opposition to stripping the land in southeastern Ohio. Most people, however, are employed by the coal companies and are afraid any demands for reform will cost them their jobs. October 1973.
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    There is some local opposition to stripping the land in southeastern Ohio. Most people, however, are employed by the coal companies and are afraid any demands for reform will cost them their jobs. October 1973.
    Erik Calonius/ 
  • Mary Workman holds a jar of undrinkable water that comes from her well in Jefferson County, Ohio. She has filed a damage suit against the Hanna Coal Co. Although Hanna owns all the land around her, Workman refuses to sell. October 1973.
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    Mary Workman holds a jar of undrinkable water that comes from her well in Jefferson County, Ohio. She has filed a damage suit against the Hanna Coal Co. Although Hanna owns all the land around her, Workman refuses to sell. October 1973.
    Erik Calonius/ 
  • Participants at the first symposium on low pollution power systems development look over the ESB "Sundancer," an experimental electric car, at the Marriott Motor Inn, Ann Arbor, Mich., October 1973.
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    Participants at the first symposium on low pollution power systems development look over the ESB "Sundancer," an experimental electric car, at the Marriott Motor Inn, Ann Arbor, Mich., October 1973.
    Frank Lodge/ 
  • Fruits and flowers at the outdoor market in Haymarket Square, Boston, May 1973.
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    Fruits and flowers at the outdoor market in Haymarket Square, Boston, May 1973.
    Ernst Halberstadt/ 
  • Gas station attendants in Portland, Ore., the day before the state's requested Saturday closure of gasoline stations November 1973.
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    Gas station attendants in Portland, Ore., the day before the state's requested Saturday closure of gasoline stations November 1973.
    David Falconer/ 
  • Smelter cemetery, where employees of the Asarco Smelter Works in El Paso, Texas (in background) can be buried, April 1972.
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    Smelter cemetery, where employees of the Asarco Smelter Works in El Paso, Texas (in background) can be buried, April 1972.
    Danny Lyon/ 

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Denis Hayes

Denis Hayes (AP) hide caption

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I have to thank Denis Hayes who, back in 1970, organized nearly 20 million people across the country in protest for a cleaner environment. And it worked. According to the Earth Day Network, the first Earth Day is credited with helping create the Environmental Protection Agency and passing the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Act.

The EPA in turn launched Documerica, a photo initiative to document environmental issues during the 1970s. A press release from 1971 describes the EPA's mission to achieve "a new environmental ethic in this decade, which will bring profound change in how we live, and in how we provide for future generations."

These images provide a reminder of how far we've come and how far we have yet to go. Happy 40th Earth Day!

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