Living the Legacy of the First Earth Day, 45 Years Later

45 years ago today, a 15-year-old girl from Brooklyn played hooky and went to Central Park to stand for something, to stand up for a clean environment. The daughter of an immigrant father and first-generation American mother, she grew up without much. She lived with seven people and a dog all on one floor of a small house in Flatbush. But she was smart, and she was precocious, and even at 15 she was tuned into the world around her. 45 years ago today, my mother took to the streets along with 20 million other Americans to mark the first Earth Day.

On Earth Day 2015, I think of my mother and my own involvement with environmental issues. What happened before my generation was here that got us to where we are today? Who would any of us be without the people who passed things down to us, from generation to generation? And how can we take what they’ve taught us and use it to build a better society?

Earth Day Then and Now

In 1970 “green” was truly green: it was brand new. The environmental movement was just beginning. As my mother pointed out, climate change wasn’t on the radar yet. “I think a lot of the environmental movement then was motivated by the proliferation of nuclear power and air and water pollution.”

Even then, though, renewable energy was far from a fantasy—my mother has a box full of protest buttons and pins from the 1970s, and her pro-solar button collection is astounding. Despite growing awareness about renewable energy, the obstacles that stood in the way of progress 45 years ago—political apathy, skepticism and an obsession with economic growth at the expense of all else—still remain in place.

The most important line of continuity from the first Earth Day to the present is the optimism, energy and passion from that day, along with the sense of collective solidarity. That sense has reemerged in the face of an issue so daunting it threatens our very existence.

I proudly walk in the footsteps of my mother’s activism, but activism is only the first step. If the streets were the most prominent staging ground for the fight for a clean environment 45 years ago, they have been replaced by the internet and the market today. I work at a nonprofit organization dedicated to driving forward solar energy for community-serving organizations. We use technology to empower communities to take the renewable energy transition into their own hands. I’m not marching in the streets today and I wouldn’t call myself a hippie, but I can’t help but wonder where I would be today had my mom not stood proudly, decked out in buttons, surrounded by her hippie friends speaking up for the environment 45 years ago.

Passing the Torch

Today we know much more than we did in 1970. We know that climate change is real and it is threatening life as we know it. It’s easy to see just that side of the story and feel paralyzed, but the other side of the story is one of hope. We are making incredible progress. We need to amplify the story of the rapid proliferation of renewable energy and slowing carbon emissions—the transition to a clean energy future is here and happening. If we lose hope now, we’ll never get there.  

Starting my career in renewable energy has allowed me to meet the people who are carrying on the legacy of everyone who took a stand in 1970. They are passionate, they are loud, they are innovative, and they won’t take “there’s nothing we can do” for an answer. No one should take “there’s nothing we can do” as an answer.

In reference to the celebration and demonstration in Central Park on that first Earth Day, my mother describes an atmosphere that was “friendly and positive and different. In contrast to the anti-war demonstrations, this was for something, rather than against.” 

Climate change is an issue, a problem that needs to be solved. But it’s also an incredible opportunity. It’s an opportunity to stand for climate solutions, an opportunity to strengthen communities and to gather by the millions—even billions—to reclaim our independence from fossil fuels and foreign oil, and to be reminded of our responsibility to other human beings, to the ecosystem and to future generations.

Climate change puts human creativity to the test by forcing us to innovate—how can we make our cities and towns more livable and more sustainable, how can we do it quickly, and how can we do it in a way that makes economic sense? This is the test for my generation, and I firmly believe we are ready for the challenge. As my mom advises, “Change may be slow, but it can happen.” 

Living the Legacy

Now more than ever, the feeling of the first Earth Day has to be replicated. In climate solutions there is hope, there is progress, and there is solidarity. We would be in much better shape had the investment and the political will and the awareness been in place 45, 30, 15 years ago. But there is no use in looking back at what hasn’t been done, except to learn from it and do it now.

What we can look back on is a legacy of people like my mom, who at 15 years old cared enough to skip school for the sake of a future with clean air and clean water—a future meant for my sister and me, and for our kids and for generations to come. 

We can take that legacy and bring it into the 21st century—invest in renewable energy, divest from fossil fuels, and commit to a post-carbon future that is safe and livable. We have to go beyond just speaking up and speaking out. We have to innovate and organize and demand with our votes, our dollars and our actions a world that runs on clean fuels and rejects unsustainable business practices and policies. 

Yes, the task is enormous. No, we don’t have a lot of time. But let’s stand in the footsteps of everyone who gathered together in April 1970. Let’s declare that we are here to create and not to destroy, to innovate instead of detonate, and to stand for something.


 

Gavriella Keyles is the Communications & Program Manager at RE-volv, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco. She is with RE-volv as a part of the Residency in Social Enterprise Fellowship, a program of New Sector Alliance. Her mother, Claire Keyles, is across the country in New York and demonstrating that it’s never too late to make a positive impact by participating in an Encore Fellowship through Encore.org. Claire is serving as the Healthcare Reform Project Manager at the Osborne Association in New York City. 

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