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The History of Earth Day


By Wayne Browning



Above the barren landscape, against a pitch-black sky, wispy strands of milky white swirl across an iridescent marble rising above the distant horizon. A blue marble, hung amid the vastness of space. Frail, lonely, yet majestically beautiful. It was an Earth rise. It was the planet of life. It was Home!

Earthrise from Apollo 8 on 24 December 1968 – Photograph by Astronaut William Anders – NASA


That was the view on Christmas Eve from Apollo 8 in 1968, when planet Earth became visible from a perspective never before seen in human history. A journey to explore the Moon had discovered Earth, and became part of an assemblage of events that only 16 months later would climax in the celebration of this exquisite, blue marble during the first Earth Day celebration on 22 April 1970 (*).


*An actual Earth Rise above the Moon's surface takes about 48-hours due to the gravitational pull of Earth, and is only visible from about 20 percent of the lunar surface. Iconic Earth Rises from Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 were taken from orbit. The significance of Earth Day, its importance in the past and moving forward into the next 50 years, can only be understood by turning back through pages of history.

Streams of shimmering light illuminate giants, rising collectively as a great cathedral above the floor of a seemingly endless forest broken by tumbling falls of sparkling water. The year, 1540. Hernando De Soto had just entered the southern Appalachians on the first official, exploration of the American wilderness.

Fast forward 200 years, little change had occurred along the western front of the mountain chain when Christopher Gist crossed the rugged backbone of Pine Mountain through Pound Gap and Sir Thomas Walker traveled beneath the great cliffs of Cumberland Mountain. Outside of a few long hunters, native Americans were living as they had for thousands of years since the first humans made their way into North America during the Pleistocene. Great changes, however, were looming!


King George III issued a proclamation in 1763 that forbade European settlers from pushing west of the Appalachian spine. This came in wake of the French and Indian War, and was an attempt to restore peace on the frontier. A fruitless effort, as treaties were made, broken, and wars fought in a relentless westward push that would lead to a great expansion of the young nation.


Long-hunters and a few pioneer settlers entered the local wilderness at their own risk, to include a young Daniel Boone who served for a time at forts built along the Clinch river at ''Castle Woods'' and Fort Blackmore. Chickamauga Cherokee war-chief Robert ''Bob'' Benge, who would seek sanctuary within the high country of the High Knob Massif following murderous raids on pioneer settlements across the Clinch, Holston, and Powell river valleys, held up general settlement and development of this part of the Old Dominion during a 20-year reign of terror from 1774 to 1794.


A delay in settlement of mountain terrain surrounding High Knob allowed it to come under influence of many laws enacted by the U.S. Congress from the late 1700s through the late 1800s. These land acts influenced the way resources such as timber and coal were managed and developed.


A major early initiative was movement of land from public ownership into private hands (opposite the trend observed in later years) in order to encourage settlement of the wilderness and to push the frontier westward. No environmental regulations were in place and land resources were seen as being limitless and wide open for exploitation. Imagine the jaw-dropping, eye-popping gazes of those who first stepped amid the giants of the High Knob landscape, where wetness grew a bryophyte-fungi laden temperate rainforest of immense trees and extraordinary diversity. A 8-foot diameter black cherry tree, for which Big

Cherry Lake basin is named, being merely a single example.


Mining, Timber, and Stone Acts made it easy for land to be exploited for resource extraction. Severe consequences resulted. Bison and Elk went extinct east of the Mississippi River, Gray Wolves were extirpated, and most species went into serious decline as timber was cut, water became polluted, flooding and drought increased.


Between 1850 and 1920 concern for the natural world began to emerge, ironically via a top-down movement in which well-to-do urbanites drove a complex and broadly popular political and cultural shift in the United States. Urbanized sections of America, becoming convinced that natural resources were imperiled by industrialization, began calling for conservation of resources for future human use. Many early conservationists were writers, like Henry David Thoreau and George Perkins Marsh, while others such as Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service, were directly involved with resources.


Pinchot played an important role in transferring the Forest Service from the Department of Interior into the Department of Agriculture, since he felt that a forest should be managed like a crop. Pinchot also started the multi-use policy and thought that a forest should be manipulated in order to increase and sustain yields for human use.


Some early conservationists were politicians, like Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, the 26th President, who supported Pinchot as well as the most famous conservationist of this era, John Muir. This was ironic, since Muir actually challenged the prevailing multi-use and human usage view of nature and instead was more of a preservationist who believed that living things also possessed intrinsic value apart from any benefit to humans.


''Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed -- chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones.'' John Muir – August 1897


Such statements were controversial, as Muir introduced a new concept that nature had an intrinsic right to exist without regard to any human benefit.


Aldo Leopold later introduced the concept of a land ethic and strongly criticized agricultural, forestry, and educational institutions for not recognizing that this is something which, if not naturally born in a person, must be developed and nurtured over time.


"'It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value.'' Aldo Leopold – 1949


Meanwhile, rapid advances in technology introduced new issues with development of pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, petroleum-based products, and plastics during the 1940s to 1960s. Unregulated chemical factories were built across the nation. Power generation and military capabilities advanced with development of nuclear technology, driving widespread public concern for nuclear war and long lasting impacts on society. Major disasters at Three-Mile Island, Pa., Love Canal, Ny., and Woburn, Ma., demonstrated that toxic wastes were a threat to human life even without nuclear war.

It was against this backdrop that the book Silent Spring was published during early Autumn 1962. The book, written by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist Rachel Carson, detailed the damaging impacts of unregulated synthetic pesticides and was heavily criticized by industry. Much like today, this was a time of major social and political unrest with the civil rights movement, anti-war movement, and a developing, grass-roots environmental movement.

By Christmas Eve in 1968 millions of people around the world, approximately one-fourth of the 3.6 Billion population at that time, watched Apollo 8 and viewed planet Earth as no human eyes had ever seen it before. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders agreed that their most important and exciting mission discovery, was an unexpectedly breathtaking Blue Marble. Earth!


The infamous burning of the Cuyahoga River on 22 June 1969 was the final straw, with major environmental acts being subsequently signed into law by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.


Gaylord Nelson, United States Senator from Wisconsin, is called the father of Earth Day. Senator Nelson grew up in the north woods of Clear Lake, Wisconsin within a politically active family. Prior to being a senator, Nelson served as Governor of Wisconsin where he supported the most aggressive conservation actions ever taken at the state level. Sounding at times like Leopold, and at other times like Muir, the young Governor made it clear he believed nature had intrinsic value. A value above and beyond any related to just economic value.

'Anti-war teach-ins being held on University campuses around the nation at the time gave Nelson an idea. What if a national environmental teach-in were to be held? That was the concept for the first Earth Day in April 1970.


Nelson's concept caught fire because the environmental movement that resulted in this first Earth Day celebration was a bottom-up organized effort by common people concerned about conditions where they lived, unlike the early conservation movement which was part of a top-down initiative driven by wealthy and well connected people in society (a minority of the population).


Nelson's words still ring true today:


“You hear the word Ecology, thats a big science, not a narrow one, its a big concept, and it is concerned with all the ramifications of all the relationships of all living creatures to each other and their environment...I don't think there is any other issue, viewed in its broadest sense, which is as critical to mankind as the issue of the quality of the environment in which we live.”


“Is there anything more vital in the long view of history than the

proper protection and conservation of our fresh water lakes, rivers,

and streams, our wilderness, the soils and the forests, the air we

breathe, the bugs and birds and animals and the habitat in which

they live? I think not.”

Senator Gaylord Nelson – April 1970


Moving forward, words spoken by the father of Earth Day must be kept alive, education must continue and changes in thinking about the position of humans in the natural world must occur. At 8 Billion strong, humans have become a geologic force on planet Earth and are the first species with an explicit ability to destroy this planet by actions of every day life alone, even without nuclear war. How is this possible? It is possible since actions are cumulative. It is possible since everything and everyone are linked.


Clean air, clean water, aesthetic beauty, mental peace and general physiological health are products of the natural world, called ecosystem services, which are difficult or impossible to measure in terms of economic value. These products are simply priceless to human wellness.


Earth Day is a celebration of this wondrous complexity of life and a recognition that each individual has a responsibility to take care of these things (the natural world) that sustain life. All are encouraged to learn more about Earth Day, to participate in 2021, and to discover how human life depends upon services that can only be produced by the natural environment.


Local Connection To Earth Day


Carrie Lee (Dotson) Nelson, who recently passed at 98 years of age, was the wife of Earth Day founder, the late U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Carrie Lee spent the early years of her life in Dotson Hollow, off Bold Camp Road, near Pound in northern Wise County, Virginia. Senator Nelson and Carrie Lee were married on 15 November 1947, and spent 57 years together. This Earth Day article is dedicated to the memory of Gaylord and Carrie Lee.


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