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Remember When Earth Day Used to Be Cool?

It’s been disgustingly co-opted by the likes of ExxonMobil. But it belongs to an environmental movement that fused both radical and mainstream America.

Students paddle down the Milwaukee River on homemade rafts
Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images
Students paddle down the Milwaukee River on homemade rafts on Earth Day, 1970, to protest water pollution.

A person could be forgiven for being cynical about Earth Day in 2022. Even ExxonMobil celebrates the holiday. Last year, the company released an ad praising its employees around the world who “work tirelessly to reduce emissions and work toward a low-carbon future.” Some of the employees seem sincere, while others look a bit like they’re starring in a hostage video, eyes wide, a little too intense in their assertions of gratitude and fealty. Some are working on lowering emissions through natural gas production and carbon capture. One earnest soul identifies ways to make refineries more energy efficient. Another even asserts that she is doing this work for her children’s future, “which is energizing and motivating.”

ExxonMobil doing Earth Day is a lot like arms and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin co-opting International Women’s Day—a holiday which began as a protest of capitalism and war. Nonsense like this from fossil fuel companies—claiming to be saving the world while they have, in fact, tried harder than any other corporate or political actor to suppress discourse about climate change and keep the world addicted to fossil fuels—is what gives Earth Day a bad name. Nothing Exxon’s employees are working on could possibly balance out the global climate harm of ExxonMobil’s continued existence as a fossil fuel company and as a political advocate for its own industry.

Earth Day has been like this for a while now: an apparent competition between polluters to see who can most shamelessly “greenwash” their brand. We barely feel surprised to hear oil company employees from Clinton, New Jersey and Midland, Texas telling us that they’re the ones saving the world. It’s easy to lapse into total cynicism about the holiday, even the wholesome beach cleanups—particularly when the beach cleanups are taking place amid the near complete collapse of the Biden administration’s climate platform. It’s too easy to forget Earth Day’s early history, which is inspiring and long overdue for a revival.

The first Earth Day was on April 22, 1970. Some 20 million Americans participated in protests, demonstrations, teach-ins, and celebrations across the nation—far more people than in any national mobilization against the Vietnam War or any other cause in that highly political time. Conceived by a U.S. Senator—Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat—Earth Day was largely organized at the grassroots and engaged people in dramatically various ways; footage and photos of the day show radical hippies making speeches calling for the abolition of all cars and Girl Scouts picking trash out of the Potomac River. Part of the success of Earth Day was that it was both radical and mainstream, and no movement can succeed without being both. This is perhaps the most lasting lesson of Earth Day, and why we need to keep its legacy alive.

The massive turnout reflected a broader movement and a shift in public consciousness, and politicians went with it. Republican president Richard Nixon, despite famously hating hippies and liberals (he practically pioneered that particular culture-war politics of resentment) became arguably the best environmental president in history—an incredible testament to the way movements can change political reality. Nixon expressed hope that protecting the environment was a cause that could bring Americans together across the political spectrum.

That notion now seems certifiable. But at the time, environmental legislation had bipartisan support. In 1970, the year of that first Earth Day, Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and extended the Clean Air Act to require the EPA to regulate air pollution harmful to humans. Two years later, he signed laws to protect marine mammals and oceans for the first time in American history. Before leaving office Nixon also signed the Endangered Species Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. He ran for reelection on his environmental successes and the Republican Party boasted about them in its 1972 platform, chiding the Democrats for not doing enough. In fact, it’s a remarkable document, in which the Republicans called for cracking down on corporate polluters, cleaning up the air, and bringing more green space to the people—and boasted about their considerable accomplishments on all these fronts (although even then, not all conservatives embraced environmentalism. Some pointed out that Earth Day fell on Vladimir Lenin’s birthday, and therefore almost certainly had to be a communist plot).

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If not for the climate crisis—which scientists and environmentalists warned about on that first Earth Day and the world has struggled and largely failed to address ever since—we’d probably view ’70s environmentalism as one of the most transformative social movements in history. That first Earth Day kicked off many of the important changes. As National Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes said in a 2020 interview, before that first Earth Day the Cuyahoga River was routinely on fire, breathing the air in major American cities like Pittsburgh and Los Angeles was like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, and the bald eagle—America’s national bird—was in danger of going extinct. None of that is true today. Our waterways are also much cleaner, and fewer children suffer from lead paint poisoning in their homes (in fact, childhood lead poisoning has declined by 90 percent). The massive mobilization of Earth Day helped focus the general public’s attention on the environment, and in turn, that of politicians. Looking at this history tells us something that we need to know right now: We have solved pervasive and deadly environmental problems in the past, and we can do it again.

Many contemporary defenders of the planet despise Earth Day. In fact, at this point the hatred is an annual ritual, observed with headlines like “I’m an Environmental Scientist and I Hate Earth Day,” “I’m an Environmental Journalist and I Hate Earth Day,” and “I’m an Environmentalist and I Hate Earth Day.” That’s mostly because of absurd co-optation like that of Exxon. But it’s also because one day seems inadequate to the urgency of the environmental crises we’re now facing. Some activists have tried to address that by reframing the day’s message: “Earth Day every day.” Naturally, this too has been appropriated by Exxon: The phrase made a cameo in the 2021 ad. But that’s the nature of corporate power. The best defense against that power is the same now as it was in 1970: mass protest.

We need Earth Day more than ever, and we can’t let ExxonMobil have it. They have already stolen way too much from us.