Earth Day 1970 may have been the greatest single outpouring of democratic fervor in U.S. history—twenty million Americans, about a tenth of the population at that moment—took to the streets for rallies, celebrations, carnivals, and clean-ups.
They were inspired, in large measure, by words: as I tried to show in American Earth, pretty much every advance in American environmental understanding and practice had been fostered by great writing: the conservation movement by George Perkins Marsh, the national parks by John Muir, the wilderness drive by Bob Marshall. And Earth Day itself by the combined efforts of David Brower, with his remarkable Sierra Club coffee table books of the 1960s, and Rachel Carson, who managed to take the shine off modernity for the first time.
But all those people in the streets in turn inspired much action—within a short period Congress had passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and most of our other basic environmental legislation (laws that it is completely impossible to imagine our current Congress passing—indeed, the action at the moment is about gutting the Clean Air Act). Environmental writing has always had an inescapably political side, and never more so than at present, when great writers like Terry Tempest Williams or Rick Bass or Wendell Berry are in the forefront of our various fights. Berry—arguably the most important writer at work in the country today—occupied the governor’s office in Kentucky earlier this spring to force action ending mountaintop removal coal mining. Last Monday in Washington, the great writer Janisse Ray (author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood) was arrested during a sit-in at the Interior Department.
Visit 350.org to find out about some current initiatives and what you can do to make this Earth Day personal.
Also of Interest
- Bill McKibben's latest book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
- Watch a video of McKibben speaking to a PowerShift rally in Washington, D.C., last weekend
- Two selections from American Earth were featured on Story of the Week: "A Wind-Storm in the Forests," by John Muir, and "A Certain Oil Refinery," by Theodore Dreiser