This Friday, April 22, the world will celebrate the forty-first annual Earth Day, an international secular holiday to promote environmental initiatives and celebrate nature. For most of us, the image of Earth Day most likely brings forth images of grade-school projects and “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” campaign stickers. However, the demonstrations that started 41 years ago brought new, fresh political ideas to the stage and changed the history of environmentalism. Such a riveting occurrence should be remembered, therefore, as not only as a day of awareness, but also as a deeply historical event for the environmental movement.
Earth Day began on April 22, 1970 as a grassroots movement to raise awareness about the suddenly pressing issue of environmental degradation. A senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, first proposed the idea to President John F. Kennedy in 1963 as part of a national tour the president was taking. Although the political issue was never raised at the time, Nelson rehatched the plan in the summer of 1969 after being inspired by the vigor of the massive anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.
When Nelson received the Beyond War Award in 1990, he is quoted as saying in his reception speech, “the purpose of Earth Day was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently into the political arena.”
The date of April 22 was chosen in part because in the Northern hemisphere, it’s the first day of Spring, and in the Southern hemisphere, the first day of Fall. Although the organization for the original Earth Day was minimal – in Washington D.C., Senator Nelson, a few peers and recent college graduates organized it in a temporary space – the national participation was explosive. Over 20 million people demonstrated and thousands of schools participated without much formal leadership but with extensive motivation and enthusiasm.
“It was a truly astonishing grassroots explosion,” said Nelson in his Beyond War Award address. Today, at least 500 million people from 180 countries celebrate the holiday each year by participating in events or raising awareness. Even the United Nations named April 22 “International Mother Earth Day.”
At Colgate this year, Frank Dining Hall will be trying to use as much food as possible that’s grown locally to commemorate Earth Day. Students for Environmental Action (SEA) are hosting a “Save the Ales” event in Donovan’s Pub the night of Earth Day. Additionally, John Pumilio, Colgate’s Sustainability Coordinator, will lead two bird walks the morning of Earth Day to appreciate the chickadees, juncos, sparrows, hummingbirds, warblers, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers that build their nests in and around Colgate.
The most important thing students can do for Earth Day, however, is use the holiday to change their behavior with regard to the environment. Colgate’s sustainability has improved drastically in the last couple of years. According to Pumilio, Colgate has reduced paper consumption by four million sheets of paper, reduced landfill waste by about 34 ton, and cut back on fuel oil consumption by 100,000 gallons and electricity consumption by 1.3 million kilowatt-hours. Yet for Colgate to truly head towards sustainability, student actions and habits needs to be altered. So for Earth Day, I urge the entire student body to start thinking more about the small actions they take – such as recycling one soda can, or turning off the light when you leave a room – that can really make an impact. Here are a few facts that demonstrate the huge impact your “small actions” can have this Earth Day.
Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to watch television for three hours, also comparable to saving half a gallon of gasoline. Especially in an academic setting, recycling paper can make a huge difference. If everyone in the world recycled half of their paper, 20 million acres of forest could be saved every year. In fact, every ton of paper that is recycled saves enough energy to heat and air-condition an average home in North America for six months. Every hour, 2,500,000 bottles get used in America, which means recycling or reducing consumption of bottled water can make a huge impact. Recycling just one plastic bottle saves enough energy to power a 60-watt light bulb for six hours. In addition to recycling, students should go “tray-less” at Frank Dining Hall and waste less food – the University estimates that about 75 percent of their waste is from food scraps, so cutting back on the food you take could reduce filled landfill space immensely.