Of all the questions which can come before this nation, there is none which compares in importance to the great central task of leaving this land an even better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on. Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuation of the nation.
- Theodore Roosevelt, 1908
Today, many in the United States and around the world are observing Earth Day, a tradition that originated in 1969 as a pet project of Senator Gaylord Nelson and other early environmental activists who saw it as an opportunity to express concern over the state of the environment and, in particular, the threat which they felt human use of natural resources posed to Mother Earth. It was conceived as a day of protest and demonstration, an offshoot of the student activism of the 1960s. Nelson wrote:
If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the political agenda.
The first observance in the Spring of 1970 was enormously successful, claiming 20 million marchers worldwide. It helped raise public consciousness about environmental issues and added a new and positive issue to the repertoire of the activists of the period, one that could appeal to a much broader spectrum of the public than opposition to the war or promoting various socialist causes.
Earth Day became a national phenomenon, attracting activities and observances every year around the nation. It retained the character of a protest, largely promoted by the political left with a lot of hand-wringing, anti-corporatism, scaremongering, and a certain amount of luddism. In the last 37 years, it has remained strong on message and protest, but weak on positive solutions.
In at least one way this is unfortunate because Earth Day has largely supplanted the older and in many ways much more positive observance of Arbor Day, the celebration of nature which I grew up with. On Arbor Day, students around the nation would go out with their schoolmates and plant trees to enrich their local environment and green-up the nation. The first Arbor Day was in Nebraska in April of 1872, created by J. Sterling Morton who was distressed by the lack of trees in the plains state. Kids loved taking a day off from school to plant trees and the observance went nationwide by 1888 and continued for almost 100 years.