By Joshua Blanco
In 1970 millions of Americans took part in the first ever Earth Day celebration, catapulting the environmental movement to the forefront of the public conscience. Fifty years later, at a time when the planet is in dire need of our attention, the day stands as a crucial reminder of our obligation to the Earth and its ecosystems.
It all started when Gaylord Nelson, a US senator from Wisconsin, decided to hold a teach-in focused on the environmental issues of the time. To do so, Nelson leveraged anti-war sentiment and recent scientific advances to draw national attention to what he considered one of the greatest issues of his time: the climate.
Careful not to coincide with religious holidays, spring break or final exams, Nelson chose April 22 as the official date for the teach-in. According to Earth Day Network, an environmentalist organization with more than 75,000 partnerships in nearly 200 countries, 20 million Americans—or 10 percent of the US population—joined together in demonstrations across the country, advocating for a shift in the way we viewed the environment.
The Earth Day movement inspired the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency and the establishment of a number of environmental policies. A half century later, the movement continues to flourish as a symbolic moment in time, reminding us of our shared responsibility toward the world in which we live. In the wake of an ongoing environmental crisis, cities across the globe are educating their citizens on proper stewardship. As a community that prides itself on sustainability, Asheville and other areas of Western North Carolina are raising the bar in order to tackle these issues effectively. “People are very invested here and very willing to actually go out and do something to help,” says Anna Miller, Americorp member and education coordinator at RiverLink. “They want to spend their free time either recreating or making sure the places where they recreate are clean and healthy.”
To emphasize the importance of education, Michael Craft, Asheville community and communications ambassador for New Belgium Brewing, reached out to nonprofits in the area with the intention of synchronizing event schedules for the month of April. “Earth Day really shouldn’t just be a day in April,” Craft says. “It should be at least a month if not every single day.”
Craft explains that, as a socially and environmentally minded corporation, New Belgium incentivizes its employees to act as a catalyst for change in the community. “It’s just part of our DNA,” he says.
Three years ago, local environmental organizations gathered to form WNC for the Planet, a collective with the mission of extending outreach during this crucial part of the year. WNC for the Planet includes RiverLink, Asheville GreenWorks, MountainTrue, Conserving Carolina, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Since its founding, the network has garnered support from a multitude of other local nonprofits as they continue working together to encourage public participation by hosting events that foster a cleaner planet. Last year, members of WNC for the Planet completed 55 community service projects over the span of 4,220 hours. “Addressing a lot of the environmental issues that we’re facing requires collaboration over competition,” says RiverLink education and outreach manager Justin Young. “It’s really wonderful to see people coming together to promote an entire month devoted to the Earth.”
“I see a really powerful environmental movement in Asheville and Western North Carolina,” says Young, “and I think it stems from the fact that we’re surrounded by these beautiful environments. It’s a lot more inspiring to want to protect the planet when you have something so motivational right in your backyard.”