School kids in dust masks demonstrate at the first Earth Day 1970
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As Earth Day turns 50, a return to the roots of the movement

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Earth Day will look a lot different this April 22 than it has for each of the past 49 years, as the environmental community rises to the challenge of showing up amid a pandemic that precludes our most time-tested forms of demonstrating. But while we navigate the global health crisis posed by the coronavirus, we’re keeping sight of the original, radical spirit that’s driven generations of people into the streets to defend the planet that is our only home.

Fifty years ago this week, six young activists huddled in a makeshift office in Washington, DC, making final preparations for the first-ever Earth Day. Throughout the spring of 1970, they’d been working long hours, planting a seed that would grow into a powerful force for global change.

Arturo Sandoval was in his early twenties, already an experienced civil rights activist at the University of New Mexico, when a fellow rabble-rouser recruited him to the inaugural Earth Day organizing team. “We were members of the generation that was coming of age in the 1960s that wanted to do more than what was expected of us,” said Sandoval when we reached him by phone a few weeks ago in his office at the Center of Southwest Culture, a nonprofit he founded in Albuquerque in the early 1990s. He took some time to share his recollections of the first Earth Day, and his perspective on where the environmental movement should focus in its next fifty years.

Six young people pose for the camera wearing 1970s fashionThe team that organized the first Earth Day, from left: Denis Hayes, Andrew Garling, Arturo Sandoval, Stephen Cotton, Barbara Reid, Bryce Hamilton, and Sam Love (not pictured).Photo credit: Staff of Environmental Teach-In, Inc., 1970, Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society,

Where did Earth Day come from?

It grew out of an idea from Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who made environmental matters a priority of his public service. Activists had been staging “teach-ins” on college campuses to protest the Vietnam War, and Nelson thought that model of activism might be a good vehicle to get young people engaged in ideas of environmental protection. Of course, the idea caught on, and it pretty quickly grew way beyond our expectations of something that would take place primarily on college campuses.

What was the state of the environment—and the environmental movement—back then?

A number of events and factors came together by the late 1960s. Famously, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire—that made national news, and shocked a lot of people. I remember flying out to L.A. for an organizing trip and the smog was so bad, I couldn’t breathe.

1952 archive photo of a fire on the surface of the Cuyahoga RiverThe Cuyahoga River caught fire—for the last time—in 1969. This iconic image was actually taken in the early 1950s, documenting the shocking frequency with which the river caught fire throughout Cleveland's industrial history.Photo credit: Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections

Meanwhile there were no meaningful regulations controlling particulate matter in the air, or pollutants in water. And there was no organized way in which we could express our unease, this sense that we were doing ourselves in.

There was an environmental movement in the U.S., but it was small and disperse. It needed a spark. So Earth Day was the spark—it made the whole damn system go up in flames—in a good way, in the best way!—by giving people a voice and a way to get really engaged and make caring for our environment a national issue.  

A girl in a canoe picking trash out of a river in 1970Earth Day gave "people a voice and a way to get really engaged and make caring for our environment a national issue," Sandoval says.Photo credit: Library of Congress

How did the social context of the time shape the first Earth Day?

This came right on the heels of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s, which took root in the African American community, which informed the nascent movement for women’s liberation, the Anti-War movement, the rise of Chicano activism, and soon Native Americans joined the struggle.

The methods of mass organizing for social change that had been forged by the leaders of these rights movements provided an effective model for the environmental movement to follow.

Tell us about some of those methods.

This was before the internet and cellphones, remember. So we mainly did it by mailing out a lot of information, tens of thousands of piece of mail. We also served as connectors for lots of disparate groups. I was in charge of organizing the Western U.S., so say I’d get a call from a Boy Scout leader in Portland, I’d go to our files and look up Oregon and tell them, “Hey, there are five other groups who’ve called us wanting to get involved—do you have a pencil? Let me give you their names and numbers.”

But really the main thing that Senator Nelson urged was: keep it decentralized, and turn it back to the people. Tell them, “Don’t look to the national organizations to tell you how to do it—just go do it! You know the local issues, go get yourselves organized!” And by gosh, they did it. 

What do you remember from the first Earth Day?

We didn’t start off expecting the reaction that we got, but as we were getting closer to the date, it was clear: this was going to be humungous. There were demonstrations in almost every part of the country. All the big news networks covered it. I remember the enormous creativity of demonstrators: people buried cars out in California to show their displeasure with the automobile industry. We had 20 million people in the streets. It was pretty astounding, let me tell you. It was a lot of fun.

A vintage photo from 1970 of a girl sitting on her parent's shoulders wearing a jacket reading "Let me grow up"A young Earth Day demonstrator in Philadelphia sends a clear message.Photo credit: © 1970 Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia

Before you got involved as an Earth Day organizer, how connected were you to the environmental movement?

I was not that familiar with environmental movement, per se, but I grew up with a sense of place. I was raised poor in a rural community in northern New Mexico, one of 11 kids in a family that had been in that place for about 400 years on our European side, and for at least seven thousand years on our Indigenous side. For me, place is imbued with deep spirituality. It’s a part of who I am. Place is a living, breathing entity that was instrumental in raising me, helping me form the values I hold today.

So no, I wasn’t particularly aware of the environmental movement, but I was aware of those values. Then I became a social justice activist in a very big way starting my first year of college in 1965. I helped start the Chicano student group at the University of New Mexico, organized Mexicano unions, organized food co-ops in rural towns. It was while I was active in all that that I was referred to the Earth Day team.

I was interested in helping organize Earth Day because I believed that the people who were causing inequality in our society were the same people who had no respect for place. The people who would discriminate against African Americans by renting them slum dwellings in New York, or refuse them service in restaurants, were the same people who would dump mercury in a river. It wasn't much of a jump at all, really: Joining the environmental movement was a logical and holistic extent of work I was already doing as an organizer in the Chicano movement.

Six people wearing 1970s hair and fashion speak into microphones“Don’t look to the national organizations to tell you how to do it—just go do it," Sandoval recalls telling Earth Day demonstrators. "You know the local issues, go get yourselves organized!” Photo credit: © 1970 Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia

What came after Earth Day for you?

I got drafted in July and refused induction. I ended up going to trial: I was one of 4,500 resistors during the whole Vietnam era who were indicted, tried, and convicted. I was sentenced to three years in prison, and got a deferred sentence which I served through probation and alternate service.

I’ve gone on from there, dedicated my life to civil rights and other issues. I did find time to get married and have children, and a 15-year career in journalism and PR. I’ve participated in campaigns for new wilderness areas in New Mexico—the Sabinoso and the Ojito, and I’ve served as a bridge at times between traditional land-based communities and environmental organizations. In 1991 I started the Center of Southwest Culture, and that’s where I’ve been for the last 28 years. Our mission is to help create healthy Indigenous and Mexicano communities through economic development, education, and cultural programs.

Arturo Sandoval poses for the camera in front of a vibrant red and orange painting in a room with turquoise walls"Retirement is for people who have a golf game, in my opinion," Sandoval says. "I feel like I’m just getting good at what I do, and still have the rest of life to try to make the world a better place."Photo credit: Center of Southwest Culture

What do you think Earth Day has accomplished?

It engaged people across the board. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who were calling about it, and how diverse the calls, and how diverse the communities. And some tremendous legislative successes followed: The Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, these big national victories created a sense of real achievement as the national environmental organizations evolved and became more sophisticated.

Where do you think the environmental movement needs to focus in its next fifty years?

Unfortunately as the national organizations evolved, they became more insular, and that persists to this day. There are exceptions, but the environmental movement as a whole is very white and classist. Because they had so much success, they didn’t feel the need to broaden their membership and message to working class people and communities of color, especially African Americans and Latinos. After Earth Day I never felt to any great degree that there was a place for me in that environmental movement, though I’ve wanted to be part of it. I think that’s really hurting us now: we no longer have the ear of most Americans.  

People march for climate in front of the US Capitol BuildingYouth climate marchers in Washington, DC.Photo credit: Flicker user Justice and Witness Ministries

How do you think today’s young people are living up to the examples you and your peers set in the 1960s and ‘70s?

I’ve followed youth climate marches and I think it’s fantastic. We’re in deep trouble right now in terms of trying to save the planet. But there is absolutely no future in cynicism: you can’t give up, and you shouldn’t. We need to elect good people, need to resist, need to always raise our voices. Action is a great way to create hope, and people need to have hope to survive.

Comments

Ron Roth
I participated in the First Earth Day. My memory is being one of about ten people in New York City's Columbus Circle, as we dumped a few plastic bag-fulls of container garbage in the Circle itself. I don't remember any media there.
Margie
I was at the 1970 Earth Day in DC. I believe Barry Commoner was one of the speakers. We felt obligated to skip school to go to the Mall and express our beliefs about the environment. One of my friends gave up smoking cigarettes for the day as her contribution. I always felt that was a bit hypocritical. But Earth Day has always been important to me. I was proud to get additional recycling pick up in my current neighborhood and have worked to be conscious of the environment since that first day. I'm thankful for the current generation who take our responsibility so seriously
Michele Smith
I ran the first Earth Day at my high school in suburban New York. We had a lot of exhibits in the gym to build awareness. Then somehow I got hold of the Pepsi company, which had a new-fangled thing called a recycling truck. They came to our neighborhood and my friends and I staffed the truck as the community brought their clear, green and brown glass to be recycled. After that, I went to college at SUNY Buffalo, where I started the Western New York Public Interest Research Group (WNYPIRG), the Ralph Nadar offshoot. We did a study of paper recycling and started the first two wastebasket system in SUNY (starting with the architecture school). I interned in Washington, DC for the House Subcommittee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, where the Clean Water Act had just been written, and worked on preserving salmon runs in New York that were threatened by a proposed power plant. The environmental movement was tremendously impactful for me. Now I'm an elected official in Chicago, trying to transform an industrial site into a park next to the Chicago River. Thank you to the organizers of this movement and Earth Day. It changed my life.

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