Living Sustainably: Earth Day turns 50!! April 22

By Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger, Religion Department, Hope College
April 22, 1970. I remember it well. The very first Earth Day. It was a special day in my junior high school. We watched some of the national events – in Washington D.C. and New York City – on a television. We went outside and planted some flowers. We discussed some of the local environmental issues of that day – water pollution, air pollution, species extinction.
The brainchild of Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day was designed to promote care for the environment and place such care permanently on the national political agenda. But neither Nelson nor any of the other organizers knew how influential an event Earth Day would turn out to be.

More than 20 million people participated – nearly one in 10 Americans at that time. Imagine a gathering today of 10 percent of our present population – 33 million Americans. That is over three times the population of the entire state of Michigan.
Fifty years later that very first Earth Day ranks as not only one of the largest gatherings in American history, but also one of the most influential. Many mark that first Earth Day as the real beginning of the environmental movement.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was founded on Oct. 3, 1970. Congress passed the Clean Air Act with only one dissenting vote and it was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on Dec. 31, 1970. The Clean Water Act was signed into law in 1972. The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. The Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976. The list goes on.
In short, that first Earth Day fundamentally altered for the better the political, economic, and cultural (not to mention the physical or ecological) landscape of our country.
So, what about Earth Day 2020? What will we do on this Earth Day to make the world a better place? What will we do in the weeks and months and years ahead that will cause those on Earth Day 2070 to say that our home planet is more habitable and hospitable because of what earthkeepers did in 2020?
(For more on this, see the Earth Day 50th anniversary special issue of National Geographic, presenting two contrasting possible futures: “How We Lost the Planet/How We Saved the World).

We live in a time when, in the face of large and seemingly intractable ecological problems, many say there is nothing one person can do to make a difference. We feel helpless. But we must resist the urge to think we are helpless. Just like those on Earth Day 1970, we must be people of hope who imagine and believe possible a good future of earthly flourishing, and then do what is needed to make it real.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, a college professor and writer, tells the story of one of her students who responded to her apology that the environmental activism of her (baby boomer) generation should have solved more of the problems we currently face. Her student replied: “When everything hangs in the balance, it matters where I stand. How wonderful to live in a time when everything that I do matters.”
Everything that we do matters. So, let’s celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by doing what we can to make our home planet more livable for those (human and non-human) around us.
 A college professor for 30 years, Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger loves nothing better than teaching students outside.

This Week’s Sustainability Framework Theme
Environmental Awareness/Action: Environmental education and integrating environmental practices into our planning will change negative outcomes of the past and improve our future.

Living Sustainably is a collection of community voices sharing updates about local sustainability initiatives. It is presented by the Holland-Hope College Sustainability Institute, a joint project of Hope College, the City of Holland and Holland Board of Public Works. Go to for more information.

The beauty of Earth, celebrated on Earth Day, is seen just above the horizon of the moon in this image from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Work begun in the wake of Earth Day 50 years ago continues with cleanups that have made Lake Macatawa an attractive recreational and financial resource.