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Reflecting on 50 years of Earth Day in the Northwest

This year, people couldn't get out to pick up trash but instead had to celebrate Earth Day virtually.

SEATTLE — 2020 brought an Earth Day unlike any other as people stay in their homes and practice social distancing, limiting the usual community cleanups and tree plantings.

But this year, environmental activism was still present, just online. EarthDay.org hosted a marathon stream of speakers to mark the 50th anniversary. Their focus this year is addressing climate change.

“It’s not the image of the Earth Day and the headlines that matter, it’s the sustained action that grows out of it and the empowered activists that get recruited at it,” said Mitch Friedman, founder of Conservation Northwest.

As a long-time environmental advocate, Friedman has seen a lot of change throughout the years. He recalled his first Earth Day, organizing a last-minute celebration at the University of Washington. He said his most memorable was the 20th anniversary in 1990 when he carted a giant tree around the country on a trailer to promote saving ancient forests.

He does think the impact of each Earth Day has cooled over the years but that it's certainly still worth observing and celebrating.

“I think the first Earth Day had a big impact because its timing was right. It catalyzed or was part of a new movement and scored a bunch of legislative wins, made a huge difference,” he said.

Denis Hayes grew up in Camas, Washington, and organized the first Earth Day celebration. He dropped out of Harvard at the request of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Anton Nelson to do that, and he’s since had a long career advocating for environmental issues. He currently leads the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle.

“It's amazing,” he said of the movement's longevity. “In 1970, no one thought that there was going to be another Earth Day in 1971, much less 2020.”

He said this Earth Day was his quietest, as coronavirus mothballed planned rallies, but he’s still discussing the same issues. Looking ahead, he criticized a “full-scale assault” by the Trump Administration on “50 years of progress.”

“In 2020, we want Election Day to be Earth Day,” Hayes said.

Public sentiment continues to change as well – a Pew Research study this week found over the last decade, more Americans believe protecting the environment and dealing with global climate change should be top priorities for the president and Congress. 64% of adults supported protecting the environment – 52% were behind addressing global climate change.

A recent Gallup poll found 65% of U.S. adults think the environmental movement has done more good than harm and 18% consider themselves active participants. The biggest way Americans say they contribute is recycling, following closely by house energy and water use reduction.

Amy Snover, director of the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, reflected on what has changed since the first Earth Day rallies in 1970 drew millions nationwide.

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“It’s hard to imagine that when the first Earth Day happened, we didn’t have a Clean Water Act, or a Clean Air Act or an Endangered Species Act,” she said. “And we had rivers so polluted they were catching fire. And Lake Washington was so disgustingly full of sewage you couldn’t go swimming.”

The stage was also set for President Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Snover said we still have work to do though of flattening a different curve: carbon emissions. 

“We have more to do, but it is on the issue agenda in a way it’s never been in the 25 years I’ve been working on it," she said.

It’s a sentiment Friedman echoed.

“We have a tough job ahead of us, but humans have rallied before,” he said.

And it brings to mind how much the world has changed in the past 50 years and how much change is on deck for the next 50.

“There’s a world of possibility if we can shape our future from today,” Friedman said.

RELATED: Ways you can celebrate Earth Day 2020 amid coronavirus social distancing