Opinion: Earth Day at 50, a perspective from ground zero

The changes needed to save our planet are deep and fundamental. We have made great strides but must work together to do more.

Editor’s Note: Berkeleyside has put op-eds on hiatus so our team can focus on COVID-19 coverage. We made an exception for Earth Day.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in shelter-at-home mode, the whole planet shifts to respond to the new normal of the coronavirus pandemic. This unique moment in our history is a cause for reflection on where we are and where we are going.

Berkeley’s Ecology Center was founded through organizing the first Earth Day. I like to say it was conceived in the Summer of Love and born on Earth Day. Since then we have survived many challenges and crises, and as we continue to provide essential recycling and farmers markets services during this time, we are reminded that our history and community make us strong. Our mission to inspire and build a sustainable, healthy and just future is as relevant as ever.

In 1970, people were only beginning to fully understand the destructive path we were on. Many leaders and visionaries saw that the combination of unbridled capitalism and humankind’s ever-growing capacity to extract from the earth would lead to the crises we now face. They predicted that our exponential growth and unreasonable demands on the natural world would eventually break the very systems that nurture us.

The organizers of the first Earth Day were fighting to protect the planet FROM people. Today, 50 years later, we are fighting to protect the plant FOR people. It is an amazing shift in perspective in such a short period of time. I find hope in seeing human kind’s potential for change in these last few weeks. Today it is clear to me that as a species when facing an existential threat, we can make radical, fast, and necessary change.

The Ecology Center was born at a turning point in our nation, at an epicenter for social revolution. In 1969, the social fabric was being pulled in all directions—it was coming undone. The anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, feminism and the environmental movement were fully underway. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which exposed the detrimental effects on the environment of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, was published in 1962 and sparked an environmental movement.

The Apollo missions photographed Earth for the first time from space in December 1972 and gave us “The Blue Marble Shot,” revealing the beauty and fragility of our small planet in the grand cosmos. Our perspective on our world changed instantaneously and irrevocably.

The first Earth Day was very political. Earth Day was a mass mobilization, not a series of park festivals. Twenty million people came out in cities across the nation. Up until the Women’s March in 2017, it was the country’s largest mass demonstration on record. Earth Day was focused on political organizing; that political organizing led to voting out the “Dirty Dozen.” These were the twelve senators who killed all environmental legislation up to that point. Voting them out was a shot across the bow that allowed the passage of a whole slew of critical environmental protections at the federal level.

The Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973)—and getting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started (1970) are the underpinnings of our environmental protections to this day. The acts had bipartisan support and were even enacted with the support of President Richard Nixon. At a time when these protections are being rolled back, we must remember and learn from this.


The Ecology Center was part of all that, and prevailed in seeding and launching many local community initiatives over the next 50 years. There are too many to detail here, but our tried-and-true approach has been to help start something meaningful on the local level that has national or global relevance–then help spread it. Recycling, farmers’ markets, biofuels, youth food justice programs, climate action, soda taxes, plastics reduction, and so much more got their start or were advanced by the Berkeley Ecology Center engaging a community that cares. All these years, this approach has allowed the Ecology Center to remain relevant and punch well above its weight.

Today our crises are more dramatic, but also more visible than ever. We have the opportunity to make quantum leaps forward based on unprecedented public support for climate and environmental protection. The change we need is deep and fundamental. The cultural underpinnings of growth, expansion, greed, individualism, inequality, patriarchy, and racism all have to be undone to get us on the right path. There is no technical fix that will allow these structures to continue without existential consequences. While change at that level sounds unrealistic, in this time of crisis and loss I feel it coming closer; I feel new possibilities emerging.

The visionaries of the 70s were not wrong, and indeed along with our growing crises, we have also made many advances towards their lofty goals. Today we collectively stand on the shoulders of so many amazing community members, leaders, visionaries, and organizers. We must reinforce ourselves with the successes and learnings from the past that prepare us for the battle for our future. With your support, the Ecology Center will be here with you Berkeley. Let’s do these next 50 years together.

Martin Bourque is the executive director of the Ecology Center.