I have a really neat memory of being part of the first Earth Day organized in 1970. I was on the campus of Northern Illinois University planting trees with my classmates and favorite botany professor. My professor led the initiative because he believed strongly that more people needed to start paying attention to the environment. I wanted to be involved because I loved being outdoors and wanted to give something back to the environment. While digging, planting and watering on campus, I was thinking, “The idea behind this day is great, but I wonder how long Earth Day is really going to last?” Well, here we are 39 years later and I am proud to say we are still going strong!

Posted by Jim Robinett, administration

I was teaching at Proviso West High School and had a lot of freedom as a teacher back then. We were using "The Environmental Handbook" as our biology text for a few weeks and conducted an environmental fair at Hillside Shopping Center.

The ideas so (sadly) familiar today were new back then. As with young people today, they took the issues very much to heart and requested that we do something about the issue. We studied the issues a little more and prepared posters highlighting them and strongly suggesting change. The issues were the same as today:  pollutants, habitat destruction, invasive species, overharvesting.

Some things have changed for the better - we no longer use DDT, use of organophosphates is greatly regulated, CITES and the Endangered Species Act have protected some animals.

The fair was a success. My high school students even protested (very politely) during the fair, something I'm sure would be either prohibited today or viewed with alarm (or amusement).

I applaud the sincerity, zeal and enthusiasm of those students, now long grown up and, I'm sure, trying to leave a better world for their children.

Posted Linda Wilson, audience research

The concrete corridors of Circle Campus (aka the University of Illinois at Chicago) were their most livable in spring, when the interspersed green spaces brightened up after a miserable Chicago winter. April 22, 1970, was a sunny, breezy day, perfect for the campuswide outdoor celebration of Earth Day. Part ecofair, part Woodstock, students, faculty members and exhibitors from state and federal natural resources agencies showed us a greener way (although with a lot of paper handouts). As an editor on the campus newspaper, I wrote an editorial promoting Earth Day and covered the event. For a buck I bought a button that said “Give Earth A Chance.” And I found out that A LOT of people shared my evolving convictions – 20 million people nationwide took part in what turned out to be the beginning of the modern environmental movement. And then a lot of us took action, individually and professionally. Looking back, the problems were viewed more simply in 1970, as were the solutions – stop pollution, save endangered species, preserve wilderness, bring about zero population growth, and other phrases that fit neatly on a bumper sticker.

In the ensuing decades we’ve gotten a better idea of how intricate Earth’s ecosystems are and how difficult it can be to effect change, socially, politically and ecologically. Still, we have made tremendous progress on the local and national levels, from grassroots efforts to congressional actions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act are offspring of the first Earth Day. Lake Michigan and the Chicago River are cleaner because Earth Day showed people that they could make a difference in their immediate environment, whether it was by prodding local government and industry to clean up our aquatic habitats or by jumping in and organizing their own cleanups with their neighbors.
But looking ahead, we have a challenge unimaginable 39 years ago: global climate change. The sobering scientific evidence has finally gained widespread acceptance, and many governments around the world are committed to shrinking their carbon emissions. But there isn’t a top-down solution. As on the first Earth Day, the energy, concern and commitment of multiple generations of Americans – informed by what we’ve learned in the ensuing four decades – are what it will take to give Earth a chance. If you need inspiration, check out our conservation pages. And see me – I’ll be wearing my button.

Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor