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41 Years Ago, The Sun Set Three Hours Early

Today—Earth Day—I was trying to figure out what kind of angle to write about, when I remembered a column I wrote last year, reflecting on the first Earth Day in 1970.

What struck me about that column is how it revealed that recycling, which we now take for granted as a cultural and financial institution, didn't exist on any kind of public scale just 41 years ago. The first Earth Day brought about this remarkable social change. Thus, in the spirit of recycling, I offer up last year's column, with its reflections on what it was like when it all began.

(In 1970, Terry Winckler organized the first Earth Day in Orange County, CA. A true grassroots movement, it exploded out of nowhere, he recalls, giving his war-weary generation something positive to rally around. Here are some of his recollections.)

It was a simpler, dirtier time, 40 years ago. Everybody littered and no one seemed to notice our trash-encrusted public places. Was recycling even a word in 1970?

Everything not tossed out of car windows got tossed into landfills, which fattened the county's valleys as fast as bulldozers could churn. Upper Newport Bay—the biggest estuary south of San Francisco—was about to be filled in, too … with concrete … a victim of the era's unrestrained growth ethic.

DDT insecticide, toxic chemicals of every kind, paint by the noxious bucketfuls, and of course, engine oil, all got spewed into the air, flushed into the ocean, or simply tossed wherever—out of mind if not out of sight. An oily, stinky froth stained the edges of our waterways.

And then there was the infamous smog. You could see it. You could taste it. A choking, brown haze so bad that summer of 40 years ago, that I actually watched the sun set three hours early. Everybody's eyes stung and everybody seemed to constantly cough. But, then, everybody constantly smoked as well back then.

Those were the good old days, the economic boom times when most everybody had a job that they crawled to and from each day in barely moving lines of cars that rarely carried more than one person. To escape, on weekends, we crawled in those same sluggish lines, hoping that the beaches we sought weren't too tarred by the remnants of last year's offshore oil well blowout.

Many of us complained … to each other. We shared notes, opened each other's eyes to things we simply hadn't seen before. A few among us—the earliest adopters of environmental caring—had long been at work. The founding lawyers of Earthjustice were already in court on a mission that would preserve one of the Sierra's most magnificent mountain areas and keep the courthouse doors open for any citizen to sue on behalf of Mother Earth.

But, most of us were just muttering to ourselves or in small groups, talking ourselves into a collective state of mind that ignited April 22, 1970 as part of a national movement. Here, for a generation sick of nationalism, was something that transcended national borders and gave us something we all could embrace and must protect—the Earth. A philosophical mantra emerged: Think Globally. Act Locally.

So, in the gritty days after the first joyful Earth Day, we took on that most local of issues: litter. Overnight, it seemed, kindergartners were scrawling anti-litter posters and politicians were whipping up harsh anti-litter laws. Peer pressure filled in the gaps and, soon, litterers became social pariahs and litter became scarce.

Some dominoes fell fast after that. Recycling efforts by citizens quickly morphed into government mandates … citizen action stopped the destruction of estuaries and pulled our greatest bays back from the edge of extinction … our cities' air became dramatically cleaner after smog laws were passed and enforced … offshore drilling was banned … local, state and, most importantly, federal clean water laws were enacted … federal agencies were created to protect our wildest places and most threatened living species.

After that early passion ebbed, the hard work of environmental protection began, led by groups such as Earthjustice, which in the ensuing decades has stood strong against the world's most institutionalized and powerful polluters (check out our top 40 victories).

But, we are ever mindful that all of those achievements—like the very first Earth Day—would not have happened, and could not continue, without citizen caring and support. That was the day's strongest message, and it's legacy.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.