Week of 8/7/2005

Dear EarthTalk: When and how did Earth Day get started?

—Laura Pfeiffer, N. Andover, MA

Senator Gaylord Nelson—who just passed away in July—founded the first Earth Day back in 1970 in order to celebrate and raise awareness about protecting the planet. With rivers catching fire from the dumping of combustible toxins, and cities buried under blankets of auto exhaust smog, Americans were becoming concerned about the state of their environment, but the politicians and media weren’t paying attention.

During the early 1960s, while serving as Governor of Wisconsin, Nelson began devoting a great deal of his time to lobbying Congress and the White House to pay more attention to environmental issues. In September 1963 he persuaded President John F. Kennedy to undertake a five-day, 11-state speaking tour, focusing on the environment. Despite Nelson"s success in getting the ear of President Kennedy, however, he was unable to drum up much political support or media coverage for conservation.

Searching for a way to put the environment in the spotlight, Nelson had an epiphany while on a speaking tour in the summer of 1969: He could borrow tactics used by the student demonstrators of the day—who were busy organizing large "teach-ins" at campuses around the country to protest the Viet Nam War—for his own cause, the environment. A few months later Nelson, who by then had moved from the Governor"s mansion to the Senate floor, announced that the first Earth Day would be held across the country the following April, and began making preparations out of his Washington, DC offices.

Within a few months, the idea gained momentum and Nelson hired Harvard Law student Denis Hayes and a team of impassioned young people—which later evolved into the non-profit Earth Day Network—to coordinate hundreds of events planned in local communities, schools and universities around the country. The hard work paid off, and some 20 million Americans participating in related events that first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.

Thanks to Nelson and other organizers, the environment had been put on the map as an issue important to many Americans. Within four years, Congress passed several landmark environmental laws—the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act—in response to public demand for cleaner lands and safer air and water. Also in response, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to oversee clean-ups and enforce the new laws. Indeed, the birth of Earth Day signaled the dawn of a new era of environmental responsibility within the U.S. and beyond.

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, millions of people have been coming together every April 22 to hold rallies and festivals, coordinate beach and park clean-ups, and educate their fellow citizens about the importance of safeguarding the environment. Schools, from elementary through college, have especially taken on Earth Day as a traditional time of year to focus students" attention on conservation and ecology.

CONTACTS: Earth Day Network, www.earthday.net , EPA Earth Day Program, www.epa.gov/earthday .

Dear EarthTalk: What are some of the trends in the construction industry that seek to improve the environmental impacts of buildings?

—Bianca Hoffman, Bridgeport, CT

Builders, architects, environmental organizations and forward-thinking governments around the world are working on a host of innovative ideas aimed at greening the built environment—from giant factories and public spaces to housing developments and single-family homes.

On Earth Day last April, syndicated columnist Joan Lowy took the opportunity to describe what she thought were the most important environmental trends. Number two on her list (just behind cleaner cars) was green building. Lowy pointed out that over 200 new commercial and public structures built in the U.S. in the last five years have met or exceeded rigorous standards for energy efficiency, use of recycled materials, water conservation and other practices set by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), an association of building industry leaders that works to promote environmentally responsible building.

"That"s 217 million square feet, or five percent of the construction of commercial buildings over the past five years," she wrote, also noting that almost 10 percent of new homes in some of the top housing markets now meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Energy Star standards for energy efficiency. (To earn an Energy Star, a house must be 30 percent more energy-efficient than required by regulation.)

Some specific green building features include: water-saving "low-flow" plumbing systems; "living" filter systems that use plants and bacteria to break down waste; solar energy; recycled and non-toxic materials (from paints to siding to insulation); efficient integration of structures into natural landscapes; and innovative uses of plants, including for roofing, to reduce water runoff, air pollution—and energy bills.

Green builders look to stack up to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system, a science-based approach developed by USGBC that emphasizes sustainable site development, water and energy efficiency, wise materials selection and indoor environmental quality. In San Jose, California, any new construction over 10,000 square feet must be LEED certified. Mike Foster, Green Coordinator for San Jose, reports that many of the city"s public projects now incorporate green features such as carpeting with recycled content or paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

A number of other cities, including San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Scottsdale, Arizona, are also leading the way in requiring that new public buildings be green. In San Francisco, the greening of such landmarks as the Academy of Sciences Building and the Golden Gate Music Concourse have helped show what can be done. And Boulder, Colorado has enacted a Green Points Building Program, which requires builders to include certain sustainable elements based on the structure"s size.

"I think what has happened is that we’ve changed people"s attitudes," says Taryn Holowka, a spokesperson for the USGBC. "They realize that a green building doesn’t have to look like a space ship, it doesn’t have to cost more, and in the long run it actually saves money."

CONTACTS: U.S. Green Building Council, www.usgbc.org ; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Energy Star, www.energystar.gov ; Environmental Building News, www.buildinggreen.com .