The birth of green

Jeff vonKaenel

Our planet has rotated 40 times around the sun since I attended one of the first Earth Day celebrations at UC Santa Barbara in April 1970. At the time, people were growing steadily more concerned about the environment. Why wouldn’t they? The air was filled with pollution from leaded gasoline. DDT had not yet been banned. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. In that same year, an oil spill fouled the beautiful Santa Barbara beaches.

However, in 1970, I was still environmentally naive when I heard there would be simultaneous “teach-ins” in cities all across the country. I learned a lot at that first event, and there were girls there, too, so all in all, it was a great day.

What surprised me most at the time was not the event itself, but the fears it ignited in some people, particularly conservatives. According to them, environmentalists were a subversive communist group working to overthrow the government. Earth Day was held on the birthday of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, so obviously it had to be some sort of secret plot.

For the record, I don’t remember any birthday cakes for Lenin on that day. Instead, millions of Americans participated in a day that brought attention to the environmental problems we faced as a country, and the environmental movement was born.

Earth Day represented a tremendous turning point for Americans. Prior to that day in 1970, Americans had not prioritized environmental safety. After Earth Day 1970, a majority of Americans supported taxes to clean up our water and air. Among other things, this new change in public opinion led to bipartisan support for the Clean Water Act that became law in the 1970s.

This Sunday, from noon to 5 p.m., at Southside Park (Eighth and T streets) in Sacramento, we’ll be celebrating Earth Day’s 40th anniversary. The speakers will be more informed than they were four decades ago. There will be plenty of vendor booths featuring the latest green technology.

Unlike the first Earth Day, it won’t be just idealistic college kids in attendance. Since 1970, the environmental movement has expanded its tent to include little kids and large corporations. It has won many victories, and suffered many defeats. Each new generation has brought its own energy and insight to the central problem of how to live in harmony with our planet.

Please consider joining us at this year’s celebration in Sacramento. Just like 40 years ago, it’ll be a cool afternoon. You can be a part of history. And if you see my friend Jon Ellison of ECOS in the park on Sunday, thank him for making sure that Earth Day happened in Sacramento this year.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.