“A unique day in American history is ending,” Walter Cronkite intoned on the CBS Evening News on April 22, 1970. The inaugural celebration of Earth Day had drawn some 20 million people to the streets—one of every 10 Americans and a way bigger crowd than the man who’d dreamed up the occasion, U.S. senator Gaylord Nelson, had anticipated. Participants expressed their concern for the environment in exuberant, often idiosyncratic ways. They sang, danced, donned gas masks, and picked up litter. In New York City they dragged dead fish through the streets. In Boston they staged a “die-in” at Logan International Airport. In Philadelphia they signed an oversize, all-species “Declaration of Interdependence.”
“Earth Day did exactly what I had hoped for,” Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, would say later. “It was truly an astonishing grassroots explosion.”
I’m old enough to have been around for the first Earth Day, and though I have no recollection of having joined in the festivities, I’m very much a product of that “unique” moment, with its die-ins and its declarations. I spent the seventies protesting in the rain, trying to persuade my classmates to recycle their soda cans, wearing bell-bottoms printed with giant purple flowers, and worrying about the future of the planet.