Make the 50th Earth Day the Biggest Yet

Premonitions of an environmental earthquake from original Earth Day national coordinator Denis Hayes

By Denis Hayes | Mar 2 2020 | The national magazine of the Sierra Club

On Wednesday, April 22, 1970, I rolled off my mattress in my shared basement hovel at 4 A.M. and walked a couple of miles down Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC, to a dim circle of light on the National Mall. There, I joined a group of Indigenous leaders, who welcomed the rising sun with chants and dances.

I had high hopes for the day—the first Earth Day. Organizers had sweeping demands for breathable air and clean rivers as well as banning DDT, halting offshore drilling, saving the whales, and removing lead from paint and gasoline. I thought we would score some victories, but I never dreamed how fundamentally Earth Day would alter the political, cultural, and economic landscape.

The rest of that day was a carbon-intense whirlwind of jetting from one event to another. (Climate change was not yet an issue.) I flew to New York City, where I climbed up several ladders onto a towering stage and addressed a crowd that stretched farther than I could see.  City-wide, according to some estimates, a million people participated.  

Next I flew to Chicago. That event, organized by a Saul Alinsky affiliate, was more edgy and radical. Diverse speakers demanded that corporations value people over profits and blasted electric utility Commonwealth Edison for polluting poor neighborhoods. Then I flew back to DC to give the final speech on the Mall. Afterward, I summed up the day on national television and dropped by the Earth Day staff party.

Twenty hours after leaving it, I returned to my room. Still full of adrenaline, I lay awake, wondering how enduring this outpouring of concern would prove to be. As I said at the Washington rally, “If the environment is a fad, it will be our last fad.”

The following morning, the wire services estimated total national participation at 20 million people. In November, we were able to capitalize on that strength by defeating several anti-environment villains in Congress in the first “Dirty Dozen” election. In December, when Congress passed the Clean Air Act with only one dissenting vote, I began to comprehend how deeply Earth Day had altered the political topography.

Other immediate outcomes included the passage of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, the establishment of the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the banning of DDT, the removal of lead from gasoline, and the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Together, they transformed modern America more fundamentally than any other governmental action, with the possible exception of the New Deal.

Today, the need for a similar transformation is dire. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day—#EarthRise2020—will mobilize a grassroots movement against a threat to the planet as great as that posed by nuclear weapons at the peak of the arms race. Humans face many urgent issues today, but only the climate crisis poses an irreversible threat to the habitability of the planet.

Frankly, the prospects look bleak. A global war is being waged on our future by fossil fuel industries and petrostates. They have unlimited money. They are willing to gin up Orwellian disinformation campaigns, subvert elections, infiltrate spies and bots into social media, and unleash mercenary armies.

But just as there was a deep discontent stirring beneath the surface before the explosive first Earth Day, there is now a large and growing unease. And today, as in 1970, the most intense, emotional, effective statements come from the youth. At student rallies and climate strikes around the world, the question rings out: “Where are the adults?”

On April 22, we will answer that question resoundingly by pulling a billion people into the streets. We plan to mobilize the largest event in history. People will rally and march in every city, town, village, and crossroads in 200 nations on every continent, carrying a simple message from our children: “We demand a future.”

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day will be an environmental earthquake. Then we will mobilize for a powerful aftershock in November.