On the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, we see both hope and danger for the environment

Proposed environmental rollbacks by the Trump administration threaten the progress already made, even as a much larger climate change crisis looms.

SHARE On the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, we see both hope and danger for the environment

On the first Earth Day — April 22, 1970 — young demonstrators protesting air pollution in Philadelphia wore masks and respirators to make their point.


The 1960s were years of great social ferment and political action, a tumultuous decade that witnessed the civil rights and anti-war movements and the beginning of the modern feminist movement.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring.”This book quickly became a rallying point for another social movement — the environment.

At that time, the nascent environmental movement was fragmented but growing in numbers and influence. And with Earth Day in 1970, a unified national movement finally emerged.Millions of Americans came out to demonstrate their concern for our environment in cities, towns, schools, and colleges across America — in blue, red and purple states.Earth Day became one of the greatest mass demonstrations in American history.

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Openlands coordinated a campaign in Chicago to ban the use of DDT that was led nationally by the newly created Environmental Defense Fund. In 1972, this grassroots effort succeeded in securing a phase-out of the use of DDT.

During these heady times in the 1970s, the EPA was created and the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and many other important environmental protections were passed. Now proposed rollbacks by the Trump administration threaten much of this historic legislation, even as a much larger climate change crisis looms.

But by looking back, I find inspiration and opportunity to build on the movement in innovative, equitable and bold ways now, like we did through that first Earth Day 50 years ago. We can advocate for stronger environmental protections and a greener economy.

We hear from Washington that a fourth COVID-19 economic stimulus package is being put together, with a primary focus on infrastructure. We want to make sure that this includes “green infrastructure” that would powerfully link climate change with quality of life. Can we restore and expand our parks, trails and natural areas while providing jobs and introduce folks to new careers in the green industry?

At the same time, we can educate ourselves on what proposed rollbacks will mean and advocate for stronger legislation to protect our land, water and wildlife on local and federal levels.

We can support historically marginalized communities, ensuring the health and well-being of our region. Earlier this month, residents of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood were subjected to polluted dust in their air from a mismanaged demolition of a nearby power plant, exposing them to added danger in a time of COVID-19.

We support the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization’s long-term, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s current efforts to stop continued work on the site and protect residents from harmful chemicals in their air and water. Chicago’s community-based environmental organizations have always been and continue to be vital to our region’s equity, health and well-being, and they deserve our support. At this historic time, we can look to bold young leaders and new ways of organizing.

Fifty years ago, the environmental grassroots movement was led in large part by young people who saw their country and earth going in the wrong direction. While our in-person celebrations, rallies and events for this Earth Day have been postponed or cancelled, we need only look to leaders like Greta Thunberg, Vic Barrett and Jamie Margolin, who have used social media to drive climate action. Clearly youth holds the hope of the future!

We need to continue to learn from the corona crisis of today and envision a future where all of us become advocates for nature and agents for positive change.

Gerald W. Adelmann is president & CEO of Openlands, a Chicago-based conservation organization.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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