My publisher at Apprentice Shop Books, Muriel Dubois, had put out a call for proposals for a new series on turning points in American history. I asked my husband for suggestions. Being a pharmacist, he came up with medical-related things like the invention of antibiotics or the discovery of DNA. None of those topics excited me. Then he told me he’d heard an NPR broadcast on the impact of the first Earth Day. I knew that was it, a topic at the intersection of two of my passions, the environment and history.
I played hooky from a meeting that evening to work up my proposal and sent it off late that night. When I opened my email at 7:30 the next morning, I already had a go from my publisher.
This was not going to be the usual Earth Day book about planting trees and recycling. I wanted to show kids what conditions were like before Earth Day, when there was little or no environmental protection. It’s important for kids to know what that meant, especially now, when some are trying to weaken our regulations.
During my research, I watched videos of men spraying kids with DDT as they waited in line for the school bus. I learned about rivers that were so polluted they caught fire. In my book, I wanted to document the changing attitudes. I opened one chapter with this line: “Folks in Donora, Pennsylvania were proud of their pollution. In the Donora of 1948, pollution meant progress and prosperity, at least until a smog descended on the city that left over 6,000 people sick and twenty people dead.”
“By the 1960’s Americans had begun to worry about the threats to their environment, but it took two environmental heroes, Senator Gaylord Nelson and Denis Hayes, the creators of Earth Day, to wake up congress and the president to the dangers.” Because of their vision and their efforts, that first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, was the largest demonstration in American history. It’s estimated that 20,000,000 people took part, about a tenth of the population of the United States.
That got the attention of our elected officials. Soon after, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Most of the environmental protections we enjoy today were enacted in the decade following the first Earth Day. It was a turning point in American history.
Climate change, deforestation, oil spills; environmental problems continue to plague us. To quote Senator Gaylord Nelson, “Are we able to meet the challenge? Yes. Are we willing? That is the unanswered question.”
Linda Crotta Brennan is the author of Flannel Kisses, Marshmallow Kisses, and The Black Regiment of the American Revolution. Her book, When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story, will be out from Apprentice Shop Books next year. Look for it! For more information about Linda and her books, visit her website at www.lindacrottabrennan.com