The Origin of Earth Day and Greening the Arab Spring

Arab Spring, earth, social media, Earth Day, environment, activism

It is worth remembering that a few decades ago, there were no environmentalists in the United States. There were no rules that prohibited polluters from spewing toxic fumes into the atmosphere. Nobody was watching the agriculture industry to ensure that their pesticides weren’t contaminating water ways. Americans were asleep.

Then Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring hit the NY Times bestseller list in 1962 and woke them up. Suddenly the relationship between environmental degradation and public health became clear and angered people. But even then it wasn’t until a US senator channeled energy from anti-war protests into the first Earth Day in 1970 that the US green movement was born. Enter the Arab Spring.

MENA is Awake!

More than any time in recent history, people living in the Levant, the Gulf, and the Magreb regions are awake. Ordinary citizens have found strength in social media and one another to resist brutal regimes; at last, they are using their collective voice to fight back against unemployment and food insecurity.

And with that courage, to varying degrees of success, they have ousted unfit leaders and continue to struggle for a new era of accountability and justice, dignity and a decent standard of living. So how can we channel this energy into demanding environmental justice?

For clues, let’s step back a few decades.

Human history is saturated with war and violence, but in the 1970s, new media and technology brought the horrors of Vietnam to living rooms across the United States, making it more real and imminent than it had ever been before. More than 58,000 Americans forced to defend someone else’s war died in the tropics, while as many as 2 million Vietnamese suffered the same grisly fate.

Finally, ordinary people put fear of authority aside and rose up, protesting all across the country. And once they found their feet, they became unstoppable, leaving politicians no choice but to listen. It wasn’t rosy, there were many pitfalls, and this isn’t even half the story, but eventually democracy won a small battle and the United States withdrew their forces.

Vietnam and the green movement

What does this have to do with the green movement?

After a 1969 oil spill spoiled the coast of beautiful Santa Barbara in California, Gaylord Nelson – a senator from Wisconsin – decided it was time to encourage Americans to fight for environmental justice too, and his timing couldn’t have been better. In fact, one might argue that it was then or never. He had to catch the people while they were awake and mobilized, before apathy caught them in its grip once more, so he did. This is how the first Earth Day came about.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took to streets and parks demanding an end to oil spills, toxic dumps, and the destruction of wild places. Egypt’s black cloud? The same used to exist in America’s industrial areas. Trash-filled wadis? Those existed too. Red Sea oil spills and illegal fishing of endangered species? These are all issues that Americans have been fighting against for the past three decades.

Channeling anger for good

It took a combination of government leadership, grassroots vision, and a strong sense of injustice to get the momentum started, and the green movement has been gathering steam ever since. There have been peaks and valleys, times of inertia and times of too much aggression, but most people will agree that informed Americans are among the most enlightened environmentalists on the planet.

Of course, we still have tar sands and antarctic drilling, Monsanto, and the damn Koch Brothers, because corporations are motivated by greed and will do whatever they can get away with. But activists make it a lot harder to commit eco-crimes than it was a few decades ago.

We need to direct the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring towards environmental stewardship. It is time to hold companies that do business in our beautiful places accountable. We have a right to eat food that is free of carcinogens, to drink clean water, and to breathe fresh air. And there is no better time to demand these things than now — while our eyes are wide open.

Happy Earth Day!

Image credit: Earth and Technology, Shutterstock

More on Environmental Issues and the Arab Spring: 

The Arab Spring was Hibernating in Egypt’s Green Party

#Occupy Climate Change

Jordan Joins Food Protests as Tunisian President Steps Down

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