Lauren Rabaino

In 1970, the Beatles broke up, Apollo 13 made it back to earth, Jimi Hendrix died, four students at Kent State University were killed in an anti-war protest, and construction of the World Trade Center was completed. Looking back in history, 1970 marked a year of change, unrest and turmoil, but also new beginnings.

In September 1969, Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) announced that in the spring of 1970 there would be a grassroots demonstration and “teach in” on environmental issues. (Remember that at this time, air pollution was seen as a sign of economic prosperity, every passenger car was a V-8, leaded, gas-sipping steel tank, and conversations about the environment among politicians were few and far between.) Months later, the New York Times reported, “Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam.”And sure enough, on April 22, 1970, under the leadership of Sen. Nelson, more than 20 million Americans participated in a day of education, celebration and community service for the first-ever Earth Day.

Ask your parents. Some probably celebrated, protested or cleaned up a creek, while others may have rejected the event as another dirty hippie party. But one thing is for sure: April 22, 1970 changed America as we know it today. Earth Day launched the environment into national conversation and sent a strong signal to Washington, D.C. Following this monumental grassroots event was a wave of government action, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Clean Air Act.

Over the years, Earth Day grew to be a critical event to educate and push for stronger environmental policies. Earth Day 1990 involved more than 200 million people from 141 countries. This event focused on recycling worldwide and provided a huge boost of attention to the United Nations Rio De Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, which involved 171 nations (most of which were the nation’s presidents or heads of state) and nearly 20,000 participants. This two-week conference focused on toxicity, water scarcity and other environmental issues, but is most remembered for an agreement made on the Climate Change Convention. This agreement eventually led to the Kyoto Protocol (which the U.S. still hasn’t signed, but that’s another column for another time).

The Earth Day Network of 17,000 environmental organizations worldwide predicted that this year, more than 500 million people participated in different Earth Day activities. This year’s focus was on climate change, and with the Kyoto Protocol set to expire in 2012, there couldn’t be a more important time to elevate the discussion for the next international climate agreement.

Just as concerned citizens in 1970 and 1990 raised crucial environmental issues to a national and global level, we have the power to elevate the conversation on the challenge of our generation: climate change. We can start by making changes on campus, but also, when in chorus with more than a half a billion others, we can help change the world.

Cal Poly officially celebrates Earth Day next week, and you are invited to join in on an important discussion on climate change. Next Tuesday, April 29, in Chumash Auditorium at 11 a.m., British polar explorer Robert Swan will deliver a keynote speech about the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and saving our polar ice caps. Swan will sail into Morro Bay Harbor on a renewable energy power boat as part of a five-year worldwide “Voyage for Cleaner Energy.” I encourage the entire Cal Poly community to attend this discussion and join the world in celebrating our wonderful planet.

Chad Worth is an industrial engineering senior, president of the Empower Poly Coalition and an environmental columnist for the Mustang Daily.

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