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The Man Who Created Earth Day

This April 22 will mark the 46th celebration of Earth Day. Today, it’s a popular holiday where thousands of people will do things like clean-up roadside trash. But the very first Earth Day occurred during a much different environmental era. In April 1970, there was no such thing as the Clean Air Act. And the Environmental Protection Agency didn’t exist either.

In his book The Genius of Earth Day, Adam Rome says it was a frustrated U.S. Senator from Wisconsin who came up with the idea for Earth Day. For years, Gaylord Nelson tried—without success—to pass environmental legislation in Congress. And on a flight back from the site of an oil spill off the California coast, he came up with a plan to move his ideas forward—borrowing a tactic from the anti-Vietnam War movement.

“[It was] the teach in—a kind of politicized, extra curricular event on campuses,” Rome says. “He thought the same thing about the environment could really energize and empower people.”

LISTEN: “Your Environment Update for April 13, 2016”

With support from students, housewives and the labor movement, the event was a huge success. Twenty million people participated in the first Earth Day in 1970. And more importantly, according to Rome, it unified environmentalists into a movement.

“It brought together activists who had worked separately before,” Rome says. “You know, air pollution—none of the national conservation organizations worked on that. All of a sudden, people who had worked on wilderness, who had worked on air pollution, or water pollution or pesticides, suddenly began to think that these issues weren’t separate. They were all part of a big environmental crisis.”

Rome said the first Earth Day helped create the right conditions for passing landmark environmental legislation. The Environmental Protection Agency was officially established later that year. And the Clean Water Act followed shortly after in 1972.

Reporting by Kara Holsopple


How Corporations are Cashing In on Earth Day

Earth Day was, without question, a child of the 1970s—born as the country was dealing with very visible environmental challenges like thick smog and burning rivers. And activists placed much of the blame for the era’s environmental problems squarely on corporations and a culture of consumerism.

But these days, businesses and Earth Day are hardly at odds. In fact, the holiday is often seen as a marketing opportunity for companies to showcase their latest green products.

So does this mean Earth Day has gone corporate?

Vanitha Swaminathan, a professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh, says that’s a fair assessment. And she says it’s not hard to see why.

“Consumers are highly concerned with their environment. And if you think about it from a company standpoint, companies often want to appear relevant to consumers’ concerns and interests.”

Swaminathan says this type of messaging can give consumers a good feeling about a company. But there is also a danger in a company promoting its green credentials. Case in point: What BP did after the gulf oil spill. The company spent millions of dollars trying to highlight the gulf’s recovery and its own clean-up efforts.

“I remember looking at the ads myself and thinking ‘who’s really going to buy this?’” she says.

To avoid a consumer backlash, Swaminathan says companies need to follow a simple rule: Avoid highlighting your green side on Earth Day unless it’s something you do the other 364 days of the year.

Reporting by Reid Frazier