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The Rise of Earth Day

Key Environmental Issues in 1970

In the United States, the 1970s was a period of continuing transition from 1960s movements. Divorce rates were increasing, more women were working outside the home, and there were an increasing number of unmarried individuals. Further, there was a noted distinction between the more traditional older generation and the more free-thinking younger generation. As the children from the baby boom began to reach their twenties, culture in the U.S. began to change. Among the shift in attitudes between the two generations was a growing movement toward environmentalism.

Environmental problems were not limited to the United States; more developed countries were also suffering from the pollutants created by industrialization, and lesser developed countries were falling victim to destructive exploitation of their natural resources. Some environmental issues of the time included pollution from factories and power plants, oil spills, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeway construction, and loss of wilderness and biodiversity.

Increasing need and number of factories and power plants caused a number of problems including air pollution and damaging run-off. In 1962, London’s air quality was so poor that it caused the death of 750 people. Three years later, air pollution in New York City caused the deaths of eighty people during a weather inversion that lasted only four days.

Factory pollution also affected marine life. Pollution from communities surrounding Lake Erie had become so toxic that the lake was uninhabitable by plants and fish in the late 1960 and early 1970s. Furthering public fears about environmental conditions, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio spontaneously combusted in to flames; a result of the severe pollution caused by chemicals and oil that had been dumped into the river from surrounding factories.

In more industrialized countries, the 1970s also saw an increase in urban to rural migration. Poor urban planning in the United States resulted in sprawl and poor long-distance public transportation. The effects of sprawl included destruction of natural habitat, loss of biodiversity, and an increased dependence on fuel for personal transportation. The suburbs replaced natural habitats as displaced endemic wildlife. Without adequate public transportation, freeways were being constructed to connect the suburbs to the city, furthering the negative impact on the natural landscape. Habitat destruction, increasing the rate of loss of biodiversity, was not happening in urban areas alone. Countries with an abundance of forest land were (and still are) being converted in to lumber and paper products.

Urban sprawl also resulted in an increased dependence on foreign oil. Oil transportation and oil tanker congestion and its effects on the health of the oceans became a concern. An oil spill in 1967 off the coast of England created more public awareness of the problem. A spill resulting from offshore drilling off the California cost in 1969 was the decisive event that motivated then U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson to organize a country wide environmental “teach-in,” which became the first observance of Earth Day.

One final major environmental concern in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the use of pesticides and fertilizers. As agriculture was becoming more commercialized and centralized, the need for high yield crops increased. Technological advancements in pesticides and fertilizers enabled more predictable crop yields by reducing loss to pests (weather was still a potential destroyer of crops), and increasing nitrogen levels in the soil. Widespread use of pesticides, especially DDT, resulted in severe consequences to humans and animals alike. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote a controversial book called Silent Spring informing the public about the damaging effects of pesticide use.

Leading up to the inception of Earth Day in the U.S., in the was a growing concern about environmental health; however, there was also a perception that the government was failing to make effective laws to counteract the detrimental effects of industrialization. Earth Day was started as a grassroots effort to raise awareness, especially in government, to motivate policy change. As a result, series of relatively effective policies were implemented in the seventies: the clean air act (1970), the clean water act (1972), and the endangered species act (1973), to name a few.

Sources:
Events: http://www.radford.edu/wkovarik/envhist/8sixties.html
Trends:http://www.enotes.com/1970-american-decades-about/introduction
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: http://webecoist.com/2008/08/17/a-brief-history-of -the-modern-green-movement/
Earth Day: www.earthday.org