Looking Back and Forward for Earth Day 50: A Letter from our President & CEO

The 1960s were years of great social ferment and political action, a tumultuous decade that witnessed the civil rights and anti-war movements and the beginning of the modern feminist movement.  Then, in 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring.

This book quickly became a rallying point for another social movement – the environment.  

At this time the nascent environmental movement was fragmented but growing in numbers and influence.  With Earth Day in 1970 a unified national movement finally emerged.  Millions of Americans came out to demonstrate their concern for our environment in cities, towns, schools, and colleges across America – in blue, red, and purple states. 

Earth Day became one of the greatest mass demonstrations in American history.

One year after Silent Spring appeared on the national stage, Openlands (originally Open Lands Project) was formed by the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago as one of the first conservation organizations in the United States to work in a large city and broad metropolitan region.   At less than ten years old, Openlands played a key role with others organizing Chicago’s Earth Day, which included events spanning a whole week, culminating in a public demonstration at the Civic Center (now Daley Plaza) that drew nearly 7,000 people. 

Openlands coordinated the campaign in Chicago to ban the use of DDT that was led nationally by the newly created Environmental Defense Fund.  In 1972 this grassroots effort succeeded in securing a phase-out of its use.  During these heady times in the 1970s, the EPA was created and the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and many other important environmental protections were passed. Now proposed rollbacks threaten much of this historic legislation under the current administration all while a much larger climate change crisis looms. 

But by looking back, I find inspiration and opportunity to build on the movement in innovative, equitable, and bold ways, like we did through that first Earth Day fifty years ago.

We can advocate for stronger environmental protections and a greener economy. 

We hear from Washington that a fourth stimulus package is being put together with a primary focus on infrastructure.  We want to make sure that this includes “green infrastructure” that would powerfully link climate change with quality of life.  Can we restore and expand our parks, trails, and natural areas while providing jobs and introduce folks to new careers in the green industry?  At the same time, we can educate ourselves on what proposed rollbacks will mean, and advocate for stronger legislation to protect our land, water and wildlife on local and federal levels. 

We can support historically marginalized communities, ensuring the health and well-being of our region. 

This weekend residents of Little Village were subjected to polluted dust in their air from a mismanaged demolition of a nearby power plant, exposing them to added danger in a time of COVID-19. We support the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization’s long-term, and the Mayor’s current efforts to stop continued work on the site and protect residents from harmful chemicals in their air and water.  Chicago’s community-based environmental organizations have always been and continue to be vital to our region’s equity, health and well-being, and deserve our support.

At this historic time, we can look to bold young leaders and new ways of organizing.

Fifty years ago, the environmental grassroots movement was led in large part by young people who saw their country and earth going in the wrong direction. While our in-person celebrations, rallies, and events for Earth Day have been postponed or cancelled, we need only look to leaders like Greta Thunberg, Vic Barrett, and Jamie Margolin who have used social media to drive climate action. Clearly youth holds the hope of the future! 

We need to continue to learn from the corona crisis of today and envision a future where all of us become advocates for nature and agents for positive change.  And I’d like to hear from you – tell me how we can create innovative solutions and we’ll share them in the weeks to come. 

Hoping you are all staying safe and also hopeful. 

My best, 

Gerald Adelmann
President & CEO
Openlands