The First Earth Day: April 22, 1970
April 22, 2021 marks the 51st anniversary of the first Earth Day. On April 22, 1970 twenty million people participated in the event which at the time was more of an activist protest than the somewhat timid and only lukewarm celebrations we see today. Earth Day had humble beginnings but quickly tapped into some pent up energy in the public’s zeitgeist just waiting express itself in a massive protest. With twenty million participants, it was the largest protest in American History only recently surpassed by the Black Lives Mater/George Floyd Protest which was most likely even larger.
Just before the first Earth Day there was one major event in particular that raised the public’s awareness of an environment in trouble–a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara associated with drilling. This spill was the largest that ever occurred in US waters at the time. Within a ten-day period, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the Channel and onto the beaches of Santa Barbara County in Southern California. The spill had a significant impact on marine life in the Channel, killing thousands of birds as well as marine animals such as dolphins, elephant seals, and sea lions. But although this event served as a catalyst, many people already knew the earth was in trouble by just being aware of their surroundings– high levels of smog were severely limiting their ability to see just a short distance in front of them and this smog also caused their eyes to tear up and sting, major pieces of the paradise that everyone loved were rapidly being turned into parking lots, not to mention the acid rain, and toxic lead in the drinking water. More than anything on Earth Day 1970, millions of people simply woke up to the reality of the world around them. In the words of Marvin Gaye’s popular song at the time Ecology–“Mercy Mercy Me, things are not what they used to be”.
It is notable that people woke up on both sides of the political isle. Although the chief architects of Earth Day tended to be Democrats including Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, the board that helped orchestrate the original earth day teach-ins was co chaired by Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey. During the period just before after the first Earth Day the GOP helped create the Environmental Protection Agency, extend the Clean Air Act, and protect endangered species. What a far cry from where we are today, where many Republicans seek to denounce climate change as a hoax and aim to bring to an end the very Environmental Protection Agency they worked to build. This however is not intended to be a political post. It is merely to point out that protecting and safeguarding the environment needs to be everyone’s priority. Personally I think we do great harm not only to ourselves but also to the environment by making it a politically divisive issue.
Originally the Earth Day Organizers thought the primary activity would be teach-ins occurring on college campuses. They wanted to tap into some of the same energy behind the Vietnam War protests. The date was set on April 22nd, because this was a break period on many campuses so it would have little effect on the students educational activities. But Earth Day evolved far beyond these originally envisioned teach-ins and moved beyond college campuses. Some did constructive activities such as planting trees and cleaning up litter. Others took to the streets with massive protests. In New York City protestors marched down 5th avenue holding dead fish heads to protest the polluting of the Hudson River. Closer to my home, in Tacoma Washington about a hundred students rode horses down a highway to protest against automobiles responsible for much of the pollution that was poisoning the air. The methods were varied as the groups of people protesting, but still the common thread was a genuine concern that we as a society are destroying the very environment and natural world that is essential for our own health and well being.
Although it is easy to become cynical about the impact of a large scale protest such as occurred on the original Earth Day, there is considerable evidence that such a large scale mobilization of people engaged in a non-violent protest does bring about change.
Erica Chenoweth’s research, a political scientist at Harvard University, confirms that civil disobedience is not only a good moral choice; it is also the most powerful way of shaping societal change – by a long way.
Looking at hundreds of campaigns over the last century, Chenoweth found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious change. With the involvement of twenty million people, the first Earth Day engaged about 10% of the US population at the time well exceeding this 3.5% threshold. We have not seen this kind of engagement on environmental issues since then which is surprising given the wake up calls we have recently received in the United States—massive forest fires and increasingly frequent weather disturbances directly associated with global warming. But that does not mean there has not been progress on the environmental front. There are many examples—clean air emission standards on vehicles, more fuel efficient cars and a gradual transition to hybrid and or electric vehicles. But on the most pressing environmental front, climate change, we have not actually made much progress. The average atmospheric CO2 concentration now stands above 410 parts per million (ppm). The excess heat trapped by that CO2 has already raised global temperatures by about one degree Celsius since preindustrial times. Under the 2015 Paris climate accord (which we left during the Trump Administration), nations have agreed to limit total warming to no more than 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels—with a preferred goal of staying below 1.5 degrees C. To date, emissions-curbing efforts have been unable to put the brakes on quickly enough to meet those targets.
Although I am hopeful that soon once again an awakening in the public consciousness similar to what transpired on the original Earth Day will happen once again, I take some consolation in changes I see happening at more localized levels within groups of people with common experiences and a shared vision in our society. One of these changes was initiated by the young Greta Thunberg who helped inspire a younger generation to express their frustration with the actions of their elders in not taking climate change seriously. She helped organize a school climate strike movement under the name Fridays for the Future that not only captured the attention of millions in the US but around the World as well. At an even more localized level over the past two or three years I have witnessed a change in consciousness within the nature and landscape photography community regarding environmental issues which is what I would like to talk about next.
My Journey and Nature First
My path to starting my photographic journey actually started with nature not the camera. During my teens and early twenties I would head out into nature hiking and backpacking in Washington’s Cascades and lower elevation forested areas on almost a weekly basis. It was on these trips that I began to develop a close connection to nature through my experiences in the outdoors. Even at this early age, it seemed as though I was recovering a part of myself that was aching to find expression. I believe this part of ourselves, living and breathing in nature, wants to find expression in all of us. It is part of our DNA so to speak, perhaps a result of our evolutionary heritage which for most of our history as a people has involved an environment where we are closely linked to nature. So called progress, however, in the modern era, has for most of us weakened our connection to nature. Many of us grew up in environments resembling a concrete jungle where easy access to the natural world was not easily available. This is why for many of us finding our way back to nature feels like something that is akin to going home. In short in Nature we discover our roots, our authentic self, who we truly are.
It is out of these early experiences in nature that I began my photographic journey. The journey began with a simple desire to share my experiences in nature with others. This sharing did not even take place until years after my initial forays into nature.
With the advent of social media, however, many people are now taking a different route with photography. For the purposes of contrasting approaches I am going to call this different approach the consumption approach rather than the experience approach to photography. With the consumption approach to photography a person sees on social media a beautiful and highly popular image of an iconic landscape scene and wants to go there to take a similar image-for example Tipsoo Lake, Picture Lake, Palouse or Multnomah Falls. The expectation of course is that their image will also be highly popular. I call it a consumption approach because typically this is also a kind of check the box approach–some might also refer to this as a bucket list. Once a person goes to one of these locations and gets a good shot, he or she is essentially done with that spot and wants to move on to the next hot spot until all the near by boxes are checked. Then they are often off to more distant places to do the same thing in an almost insatiable desire to chase popularity and social media likes. Contrast this to the experience approach, where one goes out on an adventure and discovers places through more of a process of exploration. The experience approach is far more likely to feature landscape scenes at multiple places along ones path, not just iconic locations. The experience approach is also far more likely to feature ordinary places creatively rendered both beautiful and interesting through the art and craft of photography.
The consumption approach to photography is often associated with a disrespectful approach to the environment. What is important is chasing popularity and getting the shot at any cost, not necessarily being mindful of ones impact on the environment. Chasing popularity also feeds on itself because it encourages others to do the same. Exact locations of where an image was taken are often freely given encouraging others to go to the same location. In a short period of time the place suffers environmental damage from too many people visiting the same spot. This is also why I no longer freely share exact locations for environmentally sensitive places I worry may attract too many visitors or may become the next hot spot that hoards of people want to consume.
The larger issue, however, I try to balance this with is that it is good for our society at large that we all have access to nature. I keep this in mind when I am posting and in certain situations where the risk to the environment is very low I will provide more specific information. But in general I am more interested in getting people inspired and excited about exploring the natural world, not visiting specific locations. I have spent a life time exploring and finding about these locations. With exact locations on social media, one could do what I did in just a couple of weeks. This encourages the consumption approach to taking images and the associated risk of damaging the environment, rather than getting out exploring and experiencing nature where one will find their own unique compositions.
Many photographers independently have come to the same conclusion as I about the importance of exercising caution in sharing too much information regarding locations. A few years ago tapping into some of this sentiment an organization called Nature First: An Alliance For Responsible Nature Photography emerged to offer positive principles for Landscape and Nature Photographers to follow:
- Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
- Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
- Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
- Use discretion if sharing locations.
- Know and follow rules and regulations.
- Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
- Actively promote and educate others about these principles.
Earth Day 2021 marks the second anniversary of Nature First. The organization choose April 22 as the beginning of their movement to highlight the close alignment of their own goals with those of the Earth Day Org, and organization with which they are a partner.
I joined Nature First Photography as a partner because I believe their mission will help raise awareness among nature and landscape photographers of the role of setting an example for protecting and conserving the environment. I feel that this can be done by inspiring others through photographs and modeling environmentally responsible behaviors. I have come to realize through my own experiences as a photographer the impacts that are left on the landscape through visiting these areas and through my own social media presence and acknowledge that awareness within the nature and landscape photography community needs to be increased to minimize the footprints we leave behind. By joining forces with Nature First Photography and actualizing their core principles, I hope to help preserve and protect our natural environments for ourselves and future generations to come.
The Healing Power of Nature
In her landmark book, The Nature Fix, Florence Williams creates a solid case based on her scientific research that the natural world has the power to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and ultimately strengthen our relationships. Without necessarily having knowledge of her research, many of us who have spent significant amounts of time in nature have more intuitively come to the same conclusion. Nature has the power to reconnect us with who we are as a person, inspire creativity, and make us feel happy we are alive experiencing the natural world around us. Nature is worth saving because without nature we cannot live a meaningful life and a healthy environment is essential for the future of planet earth. Happy Earth Day 2021 and may some of the spirit of the original Earth Day be with us this year and for years to come!
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