No More Silent Springs

This essay appears in the 2023 issue of The Lowell Review, just released this month, which includes a 55-page feature on Climate and Nature as well as writing about baseball, The Beatles, Jack Kerouac, and everything else in the world. The Climate/Nature section has essays, articles, and poems about Rollie’s Farm, the Lowell Litter Krewe, and youth activists with the Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust. 

The third issue of the magazine is available at LALA BOOKS, 189 Market St, in Downtown Lowell and through the on-demand service, ($15).



No More Silent Springs

By John Wooding

When Rachael Carson’s seminal work was published in 1962 it generated a new and profound awareness of the plight facing a planet that was rapidly being destroyed by air, soil, and water pollution. One of the major results of the movement was the creation of an annual Earth Day celebration every spring in the US and, later, across the globe.

Earth Day is observed every April 22. Its goals, of course, were to raise awareness about environmental degradation and promote sustainability. The momentum for Earth Day celebrations emerged out of increasing concern with the threats posed to the environment by a century of industrial development and a growing global population. Following the publication of Silent Spring, and the several years of active government regulation and protection of air, water and soil that culminated in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the time was right for global recognition of the damages to the world’s eco-systems.

A key figure in this movement’s beginnings was Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who set out to convince the federal government that the planet was at risk. In 1969, Nelson developed the idea for Earth Day after being inspired by the anti-Vietnam War” “teach-ins” that were taking place on college campuses around the United States. Nelson envisioned a large-scale, grassroots environmental demonstration “to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.” He launched Earth Day in Seattle in the fall of 1969 and invited the entire nation to get involved. He later recalled:

“The wire services carried the story from coast to coast. The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air—and they did so with spectacular exuberance.”

The University of Michigan and its students played a key role in starting the Earth Day movement. In March 1970 students there organized a “teach-in” on the environment, building on the success of teach-ins on the Vietnam war The movement grew very rapidly. The massive Santa Barbara,California, oil spill and the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio in1969, the moving and first picture of Earth Rise taken by NASA astronauts, and the first picture of the whole earth, all combined with the cultural and political moment of the times.

On April 22, 1970, rallies were held in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and most other American cities. The movement for Earth Day developed rapidly. In New York, Mayor John Lindsay closed off a portion of Fifth Avenue to traffic for several hours and spoke at a rally in Union Square where thousands of people listened to speeches and performances by singer Pete Seeger and others, and Congress went into recess so its members could speak to their constituents at Earth Day events.

When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment to be an important goal, a 2,500 percent increase over 1969.” Earth Day kicked off the “Environmental decade with a bang,” as Senator Nelson later put it. During the 1970s, several important pieces of environmental legislation were passed, among them the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Another key development was the establishment in December 1970 of the Environmental Protection Agency, which was tasked with protecting human health and safeguarding the natural environment—air, water, and land. Those few years represented a stunning effort to regulate and protect the environment and people in the U.S.

Lowell Embraces Earth Day

Back in April 1970 the then Lowell Technological Institute (LTI) and some intrepid members of the newly created Biology Club, driven by the Earth Day initiative, organized a session with several current faculty to discuss the question of environmental degradation.  The event was open to the local community and was slated for the first national Earth Day celebration. The first Lowell Earth Day was a grand affair, with activities in Lowell, Tyngsboro, Billerica, and many surrounding towns. LTI devoted the entire student newspaper—The Text—to Earth Day.  Lowell State College students put together a display in the city’s library with photos of polluted parts of Lowell.  Rather quaintly the display included a “Statement of Mankind’s Inalienable Rights,” which included:

“The right to limit families; the right to eat; the right to eat meat; the right to drink pure water; the right to live uncrowded; the right to hunt and fish; the right to view natural beauty; the right to breathe clean air; the right to silence; the right to avoid pesticide poisoning and thermonuclear war; the right to educate our children; and the right to have grandchildren and greatgrandchildren.”

No doubt, Lowell and its citizens shared the growing concern that Earth Day celebrants sought to address.

Folks in Lowell continued to recognize the value of the spring Earth Day events throughout the last couple of decades of the twentieth century, as Earth Day celebrations built across the world. In 1990 global activities involved some 200 million people from over 140 countries, setting up the momentum that resulted in the UN Earth Summit in Rio. By the turn of the millennium millions of people were protesting at Earth Day events in support of action on the environment and global warming. Today, of course, the catastrophic threat of climate change drives Earth Day events and concerns, but for over five decades Earth Day has taken on a critical role in mobilizing and educating people about the dangers facing the world’s ecosystems and humanity itself.

For years, many smaller, disparate activities around Earth Day were hosted by organizations and institutions in Lowell and surrounding communities. But, faced with deep economic and social problems, concern for the environment took something of a back seat in Lowell and Earth Day had much less of a local flavor and appeal.

Bringing Back Earth Day in Lowell

In late 2014, UMass Lowell led an effort to explore collaboration opportunities with a wide variety of community organizations to create a month-long calendar of events around Earth Day. We wanted to resurrect Earth Day as a Lowell event. When we started working with our partners to resurrect Earth Day in Lowell, the program got initial funding through the UMass President’s Office’s Creative Economy Fund and that money helped us relaunch Earth Day. As a result, in 2015, about 25 organizations staged events to celebrate sustainability in Lowell in all of its aspects – environmental, artistic and cultural. Key partners included Lowell National Historical Park, the Umbrella Arts Center, and the Sullivan Middle School.

Over the last few years this event has grown considerably. We now have a rich network of over 100 community partner organizations and institutions, collaborating and taking part in a diverse array of collective programming across the city and region. We have established an annual collaborative, city-wide, month-long celebration of the arts, nature, and sustainability. Local businesses, community groups, cultural and artistic organizations, public schools, the community college, and the University all play integral roles in programming every year.

We restarted Lowell’s celebration of Earth Day because we believe that it strengthens the role (and perception) of the university as a central player in convening and coordinating community cultural activities, particularly as they relate to critical social, economic, and political issues such as climate change and the protection of the environment. An annual recognition of the value of the planet on which we all live raises awareness of the threat of climate change and the need to promote sustainability in all its forms. Such a celebration further raises the profile of Lowell as a leader in promoting arts, economic development, and sustainability, and provides a vehicle for engaging several critical constituencies, including: students and employees at the UMass Lowell campus and Middlesex Community College, artists currently living and working in Lowell, immigrant and minority groups, the Lowell Public School system, the Lowell National Historical Park, and economic development organizations and local businesses.

For example, our first celebration culminated in an Earth Day Parade and Festival on April 25, 2016. Events leading up to the day of the parade included: puppet-making workshops at Boys and Girls Club, Sullivan Middle School, Reilly Elementary School, Stoklosa Middle School. We also worked with the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust and the Lowell Film Collaborative to promote an Eco-film series and set up a “Greener Studio Challenge” art competition for New England college students to explore the creation of art using safer materials and healthier studio practices. Numerous other activities preceded our Earth Day parade through downtown Lowell, featuring puppets made by local school kids, music from local bands, and banners and flags from many Lowell organizations.

The Lowell Cultural Council, the Richard and Nancy Donahue Charitable Foundation, and UMass Lowell’s Center for Arts and Ideas, all provided funding to support the promotion of the arts, economic development, and sustainability. In addition, the UMass Lowell’s Office of Sustainability has played a key role in coordinating these Lowell Earth Day Celebrations.  For the next three years our Earth Day celebration and Parade grew in size and scope and included a sustainability fair featuring many organizations and businesses who work and care about the earth. The pandemic, of course, severely limited our activities over the last two years and we were only able to organize some modest (and virtual) events. This was a particular loss in 2020 when we were to mark the 50th. Anniversary of Earth Day. Despite these challenges and given the need for immediate action to prevent further global warming we hope to continue and build on Lowell’s tradition of recognizing the need to protect the planet on which we all depend.