History Lesson: Reflecting on Wisconsin’s connection to Earth Day

Fifty-two years after the first Earth Day celebration, more than a billion people across nearly 200 countries will rally again.
Earth Day Vepeople rally around the capitol buildingrtical

Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Image ID 48105

They came from all over the state, some by foot or bicycle, others pouring out of gas-guzzling buses and cars. They blinked up into a slate gray April sky, “Save Your Earth, You Can’t Get Off” signs in hand, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” tucked under their arms. A junior senator from Wisconsin had called for an Earth Day rally and 20 million people around the world showed up. The modern environmental movement was in full bloom.

“Bridge Over Troubled Waters” hit the airwaves. Cowboys shot it out on “Gunsmoke” every Monday night. A massive oil spill still swirled in California’s ocean, and many more would come. There would be untold, unimagined advancements over the next 52 years — and with each came a high price, made payable on layaway. Rainforests would be slashed and burned as human beings sweated in shops and parched fields. We’d buy fat, red tomatoes in February. Boxes of goods would drop from the sky to our doorsteps. In our pockets, an entire universe would soon fit inside a screened device no bigger than a deck of cards.

Tornados began to twist through all the wrong seasons. Wildfires raged, the oceans rose. So did the earnest efforts: solar and wind power, recycling and composting centers, electric cars, slow foods, ethical clothes. A new generation used those tiny devices to stand up to presidents on TikTok. A Swedish teenager stood before the world’s most prominent leaders and said, “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” But she also said, “The world is waking up. And change is coming whether you like it or not.”

Fifty-two years after the first Earth Day celebration, more than a billion people across nearly 200 countries will rally again. The songs and art keep coming. So do the shootouts on TV. And everywhere, from the rolling prairies to the cracks between the sidewalk slabs bordering the Capitol Square, spring’s new growth pushes stubbornly through.

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