Remembering the First Earth Day Fifty Years Later

The world’s first Earth Day was held fifty years ago on April 22, 1970 while I was a freshman in college. To commemorate the event, Hans-Dieter Froese, a prominent New York contemporary artist and my sculpture professor at the time, gave our class an assignment to design and implement a bio-degradable, site-specific, outdoor installation.

Although common today, the terms “site specific” and “installation” were brand new to the contemporary art world in 1970, as was the notion of “bio-degradable” materials. I didn’t know then that what we had been assigned to do could also be classified as public art and that so many years later I would be immersed in two, large-scale, site-specific, public art installations. If you would have told me that I would be remembering my first primitive attempt in that discipline in 2020, I would not have believed you. Nor could I have imagined that my paintings, public art projects and writing would be focusing almost exclusively on the environment and the climate crisis.

After surveying familiar materials that might be used to complete the class assignment, my classmate, Leslie, and I chose to collaborate on a red Jello installation. (Don’t laugh, we were serious about this.) Jello, we thought, was bio-degradable because it would melt back into a harmless liquid that could be absorbed into the ground when it was exposed to heat. We selected a specific site outside our dorm that had full sun exposure and was visible to a large number of students, and we correctly predicted that a sculpture comprised only of a red, transparent substance that could reflect the light of the sun would create a very dramatic statement. What we didn’t realize was that the red dye used in the Jello contained chemicals that were harmful to the environment. (Packaging labels that include ingredients were still a thing of the future.) We also didn’t realize that to make, refrigerate and transport the product of 150 boxes of Jello would require an enormous amount of time and effort.

Thankfully, April 22, 1970 was a warm, sunny day. As a consequence, when the sculpture was installed in the sun alongside the walkway outside our dorm, the Jello melted as required. I have no photograph of the actual sculpture to document the moment but picture this: multiple 12″ x 18″ slabs of red Jello piled on top of each other at various angles to a height of about three feet, shining brilliantly in the sun. Despite our initial misgivings about the project, we had created a dynamic, jiggling, ephemeral installation that challenged the college community to consider a work of art in a new discipline, comprised of an unusual material and marking the first Earth Day. The generic image below will give you a general idea of what the installation looked like.

I remember some of my fellow students mocking our efforts as they passed by the installation that day. Is this “modern art?” they sneered. “You get credit for this?” Very few students outside of Froese’s class understood that the installation was a visual statement promoting a green environment and conservation of the Earth’s resources. For those who actually stopped to interact with us, though, the installation was successful in stimulating conversations on why we needed to talk about the natural environment and our responsibilities to it.

Earth Day 1970 was the first time that millions of Americans united to respond to contemporary environmental issues, which then consisted of damaging oil spills, choking smog, species extinction and highly polluted rivers. The passage of critical environmental laws came about as a direct result of the positive energy generated in 1970 and included The Clean Air (1970), Clean Water (1972) and Endangered Species (1973) Acts as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970). Earth Day 1970 marked the beginning of the environmental movement in this country.

All these years later, as I watch the growing effects of climate disruption occurring across the world, I can’t help but think back to the 1970’s and 1980’s when scientists were already aware of the dangers that would severely impact the health of the planet if we did not cut back on the use of chlorofluorocarbons, fossil fuels and other manmade compounds. As early as 1962, Rachel Carson in her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, had warned of the damages happening to wildlife, bees, agricultural animals, pets and humans caused by the use of pesticides and other chemicals. We did not heed these early warnings and are now faced with global warming at an unprecedented level, rising tides that threaten shoreline cities and island nations, melting glaciers and other severe consequences of our inaction.

Fast forward to Earth Day 2020.

There is something happening in 2020, however, that reminds me of 1970 and gives me hope for our planet – the level of energy being generated by young people who see their futures at risk. They are led by 16-year old Greta Thunberg, the moral voice for climate action, who on her own, conducted weekly climate strikes in Sweden that have become commonplace all over the world; fifteen-year-old Autumn Peltier, who is fighting for water conservation and indigenous water rights in her native Canada; nineteen-year-old Bruno Rodriguez of Buenos Aires, who organized student walkouts against corporate greed and governmental complacency about climate change; twenty-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the youth director of Earth Guardians, who with others, sued the Federal government over water rights and for failing to protect the younger generation’s rights to life, liberty and property; and numerous others.

These young people have started a new movement, supported in part by a global Earth Day Network of millions of participants and thousands of partners. While the major thrust of Earth Day 1970 was environmental awareness, the theme for Earth Day 2020 is climate action. As I write this, the novel coronavirus Covid-19 is spreading rapidly throughout the global population and will no doubt prevent the implementation of plans that have been developed for engaging hundreds of millions of people in Earth Day clean-up projects, education, advocacy and other meaningful activities to combat climate disruption. A difference for me personally between 2020 and 1970 is the existence of an army of artists addressing our climate crisis – thousands of painters, sculptors, installation artists, poets, spoken word artists, dancers, playwrights, photographers, novelists, filmmakers, videographers, etc. – which did not exist in 1970. They are using the power of the arts to engage the hearts and senses in ways that data and facts cannot. I am proud to be among them and to derive support and inspiration from them. On Earth Day 2020, let’s acknowledge those who have worked on behalf of the environment over the last fifty years, including my college sculpture professor who encouraged us to pay attention on that historic day. 

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the US and she has received numerous grants and commissions. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and drawings have focused on water and climate change. She co-created a national, interactive public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – dead trees that have been exposed to salt water as a result of rising tides.

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