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At 53 years old, Earth Day is a movement that needs to continue

A reimagining of the first Earth Day ad campaign / File illustration

by Eduardo de la Garza

This is the first in a three-part series about Earth Day. The next few weeks will deal with Green Mountain Energy Earth Day — in partnership with Citizens’ Environmental Coalition and featuring Houston Public Works Water Festival — to be held April 22 at Discovery Green.

On January 28, 1969, the Dos Cuadras Offshore Oil Field off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., suffered a blowout on one of its platforms, spilling nearly 100,000 barrels of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel over a 10-day period. It held the distinction of being the largest United States oil spill for 20 years until the Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska in 1989. It dropped to third in 2010 when Deepwater Horizon spilled 3.19 million barrels, or 134 million gallons, of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days.

The disaster was the impetus for the first environment protection law. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970, declared “national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.”

One year after the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, UCSB and Environmental Studies Professor Rod Nash drafted the Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights which stated “All people have the right to an environment capable of sustaining life and promoting happiness. If the accumulated actions of the past become destructive of this right, men now living have the further right to repudiate the past for the benefit of the future.” It was read on January 28, 1970, during Environmental Rights Day, the precursor to a bigger day that followed in April.

Spurred by the oil spill, the popularity of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring — about how the chemical industry lied to the public and the effects of those lies on the environment, and demonstrations and teach-ins popular during the period, then-U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin laid the groundwork for a day to focus on the environment. The first Earth Day was co-chaired by Nelson and Rep. Pete McCloskey and organized by Denis Hayes. Julian Koenig, on Nelson’s Earth Day committee, came up with the Earth Day name.

On April 22, 1970, Houston joined 20 million other Americans to rally and demonstrate for the environment. On that day, the story in the Houston Chronicle read “Thousands of high school and college students of Greater Houston joined today in widespread mass demonstrations to signify their determination that they must have a cleaner world.”

Earth Day demonstrations, speeches, and celebrations became action: Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed numerous other laws besides the NEPA, namely the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

Let’s thank environmentalists for the work they’ve done but realize that we’re still in a climate crisis. Issues that led to the Santa Bárbara Oil Spill are still here, case in point, Deepwater Horizon. Industry has workarounds to bypass environmental laws, many Americans don’t have access to clean water or air, deforestation is wiping out forests, and animals are still going extinct. This is why Earth Day is still needed 53 years later.

Take a look at these films as you prepare for this year’s Earth Day. These were all part of publicized events on the CEC calendar this year. But thanks to PBS and YouTube, they’re available to watch from the comfort of your home (links included).

Deep in the Heart will air at 7 p.m. April 5 on PBS. It will also be available to watch on the PBS video player through April 11. The documentary focuses on the beauty of Texas, its landscapes, its wildlife, and the struggles to conserve them. “Beyond the film, our mission is to bring awareness to Texas conservation and environmental organizations. In the credits of the film and on our website, we list organizations that we recommend supporting,” said Katy Baldock, producer of Deep in the Heart.

On YouTube, you can see Hip Hop Caucus’ full three-part documentary Big Oil’s Last Lifeline. The second part deals with New Orleans and the third with West Virginia. But Part 1 is about Houston and how petrochemical toxins affects residents living near refineries.

“It uplifts the stories and experiences of Black and Brown communities that are being poisoned by petrochemicals,” said Candice Owens, director of production with Hip Hop Caucus and executive producer of Big Oil’s Last Lifeline. “More than half of residents are impacted by cancer, respiratory and fertility issues that are directly linked to petrochemical production. Hip Hop Caucus continues to support these communities in their environmental justice advocacy, honor their resilience, and apply pressure to local governments to implement policy that no longer allows these harms.”

Also on YouTube, you can watch the short film Smells Like. Directed by Casey Beck, in partnership with Public Health Watch, the documentary tells the story of activist Juan Flores and his fight to clean up the air in his Houston community.

So watch these films, or possibly delve further and see more environmental videos on YouTube, and know that the work continues.