On the first Earth Day in 1970, 25 million people joined around the country to demand a safer, cleaner and healthier world, starting with the deplorable condition of many of their own neighborhoods.
Community activists articulated our collective outrage that day across the country. Charles Hayes, an African-American union leader who went on to represent one of the nation's poorest districts in Congress for 10 years, addressed a huge Chicago rally that day. "What we are discovering is that when poisons are thrown into the air by the steel mills, power plants and oil refineries, it is not just the workers in the plants, or the poor living in the shadow of the plants, who must breathe these poisons. It is all of us."
Freddie Mae Brown of Black Survival, in St. Louis, eloquently argued that the biggest environmental issues in her neighborhood were rats and lead paint.
Arturo Sandoval of La Raza told an Albuquerque Earth Day conference that "the humanity in all of us is being oppressed and destroyed by the very systems that we created to try to help us make life a little easier — to make it a little better."
You never see Hayes or Brown or Sandoval in the media's sepia-toned photos of the first Earth Day. Our collective memory is populated with white college professors, student radicals and dusty-footed flower children. Yet, thousands of events across the country were multi-hued and focused on a broad range of real-life issues: freeways dissecting neighborhoods; factories without pollution controls; tailpipes making our biggest cities unlivable.
Earth Day was also intensely political. Congress adjourned for the day — a Wednesday — so that members could go home and listen to their constituents. Some listened better than others. When Earth Day's organizers targeted the re-election of the "dirty dozen congressmen" that fall, seven were defeated and every American politician took note.
The impact of that first Earth Day was astonishing. In rapid succession, and with huge majorities, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and Superfund. Our anti-environment president, Richard Nixon, felt compelled to create the Environmental Protection Agency.
Thirty-four years later, our air is cleaner, our rivers no longer catch fire, the Great Lakes are returning to life and the bald eagle is no longer endangered.
However, the "movement" today is neither as strong nor as inclusive as it set out to be.
President Bush sees political value in trashing the environment — locally, nationally and globally. His anti-environmental policies generate huge campaign contributions, and his top political aides are convinced that the environmental movement lacks the muscle to force him to pay a price.
In truth, the environmental movement has been playing defense for the past three years, and it has been losing more often than it has been winning.
Environmentalists would be wise to discard the elitist values that characterize some green groups and reach out again to the original coalition of working people and poor people who stood together on that first Earth Day. Not just for this election, but from this day forward.
Childhood asthma rates are skyrocketing. In polluted parts of Harlem, more than a quarter of all children now have asthma, and the American Lung Association reports that asthma is now the leading chronic illness among children.
Many schools are in such desperate need of repair that they are an actual threat to our children's health and ability to learn. Shrinking school budgets mean that buildings are cleaned less frequently and ventilation systems are poorly maintained. Dust and mold build up, triggering asthma and allergies.
A lack of parks and a surplus of fast-food outlets in low-income areas have led to an epidemic of obesity. Nationally, the rate of obesity among American school-age children has doubled since 1980, from 8 percent to 16 percent.
The first Earth Day defined "the environment" as literally everything that surrounds us. We eat the environment. We drink the environment. We breathe the environment. In 1970, Earth Day included eagles and pesticides, but it went beyond those issues to talk about the overall quality of life. It was concerned with the health, diversity and resilience of all living things, including Homo sapiens.
We can and must reclaim that vision. By flexing our collective political muscle we can once again work together to fulfill that original promise to change the world. As it did 34 years ago, Earth Day can again provide common ground for all of us and find common cause with the people who live and work in those communities most at risk. Together, we can redefine the environmental movement as one founded on the belief that all of us deserve the same opportunity to live in healthy communities and are entitled to the same basic human rights.
Denis Hayes was national coordinator of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. He headed the first International Earth Day in 1990. He is chairman of Earth Day Network. An environmental attorney, he is president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, an environmental philanthropy based in Seattle. This column represents his personal views.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company