50th of Earth Day, Occasion for Hope and Action

(Note: This essay originally appeared on the History News Network (https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/175118, on April 22, 2020. An abridged version of this appeared in the Newport Daily News on the same day.)

In his No. 1 hit, “Eve of Destruction,” Barry McGuire sang of the many national and international issues plaguing the world in 1965, including: violent conflict (The eastern world, it is explodin’/Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’), nuclear war (If the button is pushed, there’s no running away), racial prejudice (Think of all the hate there is in Red China!/Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama!), human hypocrisy (Hate your next door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace), and simple fear (And can’t you feel the fears I’m feeling today?) and frustration (This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’).

Though the song did not address any environmental issues, perhaps song writer, P.F. Sloan, should have. Five years later, on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day underlined the many such issues the earth faced. Organized by Denis Hayes, the first Earth Day was celebrated in ceremonies at some two thousands colleges and universities, ten thousand (nasa)primary and secondary schools, and in hundreds of communities across the U.S.


On that first Earth Day, Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, George Wald, addressed an audience at the University of Rhode Island, warning that unless immediate action was taken, civilization would cease within 15-30 years. Writing in this month’s National Geographic magazine, Charles C. Mann paints the unsettling picture of the world in 1970. About 25% of the world’s population was undernourished; about half was living in extreme poverty. The average life expectancy in Africa was less than 46. Famines in West Africa had just killed about one million people. Violent conflict raged in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

Environmentally, a flu pandemic originating in Asia in 1968 was still spreading to other parts of the world, eventually killing over a million. Major harbors around the world (London, Boston, Bombay/Mumbai) as well as many great rivers (Danube, Tiber, Mississippi) were polluted. Fumes from leaded gasoline and also smog filled the air. In early 1970, “Life” magazine predicted that “by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching Earth by one-half.”

Happily since that first Earth Day, there has been great progress on many fronts. Average life expectancy has increased by more than 13 years. Nitrogen fertilizers, better irrigation, and improved seed varieties have boosted food production, allowing it to outpace population growth. Fewer people are malnourished. The proportion of the population with access to healthier water has jumped from 81% in 1990 to 90% in 2015. Better hygiene, health care, and nutrition have dropped the maternal death rate 50% from 1990 to 2015. Pollution has fallen in many places. Masses of people, probably numbering in the billions, have been lifted from poverty to the “middle class”.

Mann concludes: “Thanks to technological advances, political and economic reforms, and cultural changes, average human well-being has, by almost every measure, improved since 1970.”

This substantial progress notwithstanding, the environment on many levels still beckons us to act. Many of its challenges are rooted in runaway CO2 emissions causing global temperatures to rise. From the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million (ppm), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that it stands today at 407 ppm. The Administration also states that it was three million years ago when the atmosphere last had such a concentration.

In October 2018, a report by a United Nations scientific panel stated that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere by 2040 will warm by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels. Consider how a person feels with a minor temperature of just one degree.

Today’s environmental challenges, both internationally and nationally, are many and significant. Internationally, scientific projections indicate that the oceans stand to rise one to four feet by 2100. Along with stronger storms and higher tides, this rise will threaten the estimated 600 million people who live on the world’s coastlines.

The September 2019 National Geographic magazine focused on the arctic and reported that the “trend is unmistakable. The Arctic Ocean will be ice free in summer by mid-century.”

Along with the Arctic, the Himalayan glaciers are melting. The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, completed by 210 writers with input from 350 researchers and policymakers from 22 countries in February 2019, states that rising temperatures in the Himalayas, with most of the world’s tallest mountains, will melt at least one-third of the region’s glaciers by 2100, even if the world’s most ambitious environmental targets are met.

Tiny pieces of plastic—microplastics—in the world’s oceans have become a major concern over the past decade. Several studies have detected high levels in marine life. In 2017, microplastics were found in 83 per cent of tap water samples around the world, 94 per cent in samples from the U.S. Douglas Quenqua, writing in the New York Times in 2018, gave a sense of the scope of the problem: “in the next 60 seconds, people around the world will purchase one million plastic bottles and two million plastic bags.”

In January, researchers from Tel Aviv University concluded that Africa, with rising temperatures over the past seven decades, is experiencing bigger and more frequent thunderstorms.

Last fall Italy, especially Venice, experienced historic environmental events. While the country experienced rain-swollen rivers, high winds, and an out-of-season avalanche, Venice in the space of one week had three floods over 1.5 meters. Since records began in 1872, the city had never had two such floods in a year.

Down under in Australia during the past few months, there has been a string of weather events: first drought, then ravaging bush fire, capped with a foot of rain. Scientists call such a cycle: “compound extremes.” Former dairy farmer, Peter Ruprecht, buffeted by the extreme weather, stated: “We speak about the warmth of Mother Nature, but nature can also be vicious and wild and unforgiving.”

Off the shore of Australia stands the Great Barrier Reef, which recently experienced its third mass bleaching due to warming temperatures in five years. The Reef is one of the world’s most important marine ecosystems, supporting thousands of marine species. Scientists have indicated that other reefs around the world also have been dying at an alarming rate.

Great Barrier Reef


In the past five years, the United States has had its own fair share of dramatic environmental events. Last year across the South, many areas faced both elevated temperatures and drought, even though summer had turned to fall. In October, new record highs were set across the region, with temperatures in the high 90s in cities such as Nashville, Tallahassee, and Louisville. This unusual heat wave struck as the NOAA reported that last summer tied for the hottest on record for the northern hemisphere.

In California in 2017-2018, six of the top ten most destructive wildfires took place, destroying many homes and forested areas. Insurers indicated that increasing population density and a warming planet add up to more uncertainty. According to the state’s Department of Insurance, the wildfires cost insurers $23 billion.

In March, 2019, late-winter rains and snowmelt led to record-breaking floods which inundated the Midwest, causing dozens of levees to fail and billions of dollars of damage. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, at least 50 levees were breached. Counties in Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri were especially hard hit.

Despite these environmental calamities, I remain optimistic about our ability to address and manage these challenges, both nationally and internationally. First, I believe the coronavirus pandemic may stun us, especially the go-it-alone nationalists, into thinking more globally. Global challenges require global cooperation and action.

Second, there are some truly positive trends regarding renewable energy sources. The U.S. government projects that the renewable contribution to our electricity will increase from 19 percent today to 38 percent by 2050. National Geographic reports that renewable energy—mainly wind and solar—is projected to top all other sources of electricity by 2045. During the past decade, electric charging stations for vehicles have finally shown a dramatic increase, with tens of thousands now across the country.

Third, I have tremendous faith in American technology and innovation. For example, scientists are working on technology which will allow the capture and storage of carbon emissions.

Fourth, in my studies of not only American civilization, but also civilizations throughout history, I still believe in the power of human agency: the ability of societies—with the right leadership—to make smart decisions to address clear threats to their civilizations.

Finally, and most importantly, leadership will soon pass to the younger generations, and in my experience—the reporting I read, the undergrad students I teach, the grandchildren I help to nurture—the world’s youth overwhelmingly supports addressing the environmental challenges vigorously. It is they who shall inherit the Earth.

Laura Parker writing in National Geographic (April, 2020) states: “Millions of children have come of age watching ice sheets melt and temperatures rise, and they are fed up with waiting for government leaders to act.” Political scientist Stephen Zunes states: “The Vietnam War served as a trigger to radicalize a generation. Climate change is going to do the same thing.”

Some examples: Beyond Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish activist who has been in the headlines, there is Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, 19, a youth director for Earth Guardians in Colorado. He is one of 21 young people suing the national government over their constitutional right to life by demanding action on climate change.

Ghilain Irakoze, 20, is the founder of Wastezon in Rwanda. It uses a mobile app to connect consumers with the recycling industry. Mayumi Sato, 25, from Tokyo, has done environmental work in Thailand, Laos, Nepal and elsewhere. She states: “We all have to take part in climate justice.”

Kehkashan Basu, 19 and now living in Toronto, started the Green Hope Foundation to give young people a voice. He has been active in planting trees in India and Bangladesh. Felix Finkbeiner, 22 in Germany, founded Plant for the Planet in 2007 which has planted 8 million trees in 73 countries.

Delaney Reynolds, 20 in Florida, states in her speeches that at five foot two, she can look forward to age 60 when the sea level in her home state will be at her waist. She says: “It’s incredible that kindergartners can grasp this as a problem and politicians can’t.”

To paraphrase the final line of “Eve of Destruction:” I don’t believe we’re (yet) on the eve of destruction.

Fred Zilian is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI (www.zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian)


“The Arctic Is Heating Up.” National Geographic. September, 2019.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. NY: Penguin, 2011.

Friedman, Thomas. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How It Can Renew America. NY: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Mann, Charles C. “New Challenges for Us All.” National Geographic. April, 2020, 36-41.

Parker, Laura. “Fighting for Their Future.” National Geographic. April, 2020, 36-41. 70-79.

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