Penn’s campus brims with environmentally-friendly efforts like reusable food containers at 1920 Commons, bike share programs and recycling bins near trash cans. But 46 years ago, this kind of awareness and access to resources was only a dream.
This dream began turning into a reality on April 22, 1970, when members of the Penn community banded together to create the first ever Earth Day.
Earth Day was inspired by a 1969 speech by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, highlighting the consequences of depleting natural resources. The speech came at a time when environmental issues were on people’s minds — soon after the publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” and the massive 1969 fire on Cuyahoga River.
Nelson invited the entire nation to partake in Earth Day celebrations, which led to a grassroots movement among hundreds of thousands of people who gathered in cities across the country to show support for the environment.
In Philadelphia, a group of mostly Penn students and faculty, including late landscape architecture and urban planning professor Ian McHarg and retired earth science professor Robert Geigengack, led efforts for the Philadelphia region’s first Earth Day events. Teaming up with leaders, activists and planners from the city and local universities, they hosted an entire week of programming, starting on April 16, that culminated in the first ever Earth Day on April 22.
According to Ian McHarding’s autobiography at the first Earth Day rally, an estimated crowd of 30,000 people came to Fairmount Park in Philadelphia to hear the city’s keynote speaker Sen. Edmund Muskie — the largest gathering in any location.
“We can use the power of the people to turn the nation around,” Muskie said. “The power of the ballot box, the cash register, the courts and peaceful assembly, where we can demand redress of grievances as we are doing here today and across the land.”
Flash forward to 2016 — the Student Sustainability Association now boasts 15 constituent groups, and on Friday, Penn will celebrate its seventh Tree Campus USA title, an prize awarded by the Arbor Day foundation to campuses that commit to tree management, foster healthy urban forests, community outreach and engagement of the student population.
Facilities and Real Estate Environmental Sustainability Director Dan Garofalo says the campus has come a long way.
“A friend of mine sent me photos he took during his Fling — I think these were from the 1980s,” he said. “At the time, the city didn’t have recycling. The University didn’t have recycling programs that were formalized. So the students had a truck which all during Fling collected bottles and cans and things like that. It was something he was really proud of because the students at the time were really taking the lead in bringing environmental awareness to the campus.”
He said this history reflects Penn’s legacy of commitment to the environment, but added that people at Penn and elsewhere can do more to help the earth, by reducing the amount of nondurable goods they use.
“Everyone has a responsibility to try and reduce and minimize our waste every day, and everyone on campus has a role to play,” he said.
His message resonates with College sophomore and Daily Pennsylvanian contributing reporter Aria Kovalovich. As one of the founding members of Epsilon Eta, Penn’s environmental fraternity, she says that the commitment shown in the 1970s is something current students can aspire to.
“That’s our goal: a Penn in which there’s enough students who care about this and are active and see this vision and want to carry it through,” Kovalovich said.
She was inspired by the fact that regular students were able to gather together to make such a lasting impact, believes it demonstrates how Penn is a place where students can use their voices to make a difference. She said it can simply start in the classroom — she met her fellow Eta founders in environmental science class, and fun conversations about their passion for the environment turned into something bigger.
“We wanted to create more of a cohesive community where it’s really accessible and cool to care about these issues,” Kovalovich said.
Since the 1970s, Earth Day has grown. The first Earth Day is said to have attracted 20 million Americans from 10,000 elementary and high schools, 2,000 colleges and more than 1,000 cities and towns, according to Penn Current. Today, Earth Day Network collaborates with more than 17,000 partners and organizations in 174 countries with more than 1 billion people across the globe, according to History.com.
College junior and School of Social Policy & Practice graduate student Gavriela Reiter, a student director of the Student Sustainability Association, believes that although Penn has achieved commendable progress, there is still much more that can be done, such as divesting from fossil fuels. Still, she said, the University is showing signs of improvement. She points to the revamping of the Eco-Reps program, which will soon become more project-based, for example.
“The fact that the first Earth Day was a project of the professors and students at Penn really speaks to the spirit we have in sparking real-world discussions and action on campus, and I think one way Penn students can take that legacy forward is looking at intersectionality,” Reiter said.
She mentioned that not all people are as lucky to live in safe and clean conditions like those at Penn, and emphasized the importance of looking at the broader impact of people’s actions, rather than just the individual effects.
Her sentiments echo those of Nelson himself.
“Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty,” Nelson said in his 1970 Earth Day speech. “The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.”
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