Each year on April 22nd, our nation remembers the birth of the modern environmental movement by celebrating Earth Day. Begun in 1970, this national holiday started during a time when much of America’s focus was on the Vietnam War and Civil Rights. Meanwhile, within the United States, pollution and what we could call “environmental carelessness” was rampant, but considered a necessary side effect of prosperity.
The stage had been set for people to begin caring about the environment eight years prior with the publication of Rachel Carson’s bestseller Silent Spring. The book sold more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries. Rachel Carson raised public awareness and concern for all living organisms, the environment and public health.
An oil-spill in Santa Barbara, CA inspired Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to suggest an Earth Day. His goal was to replicate the anti-war movement’s success and propel environmental protection into the mainstream of the political agenda. On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, universities and colleges organized demonstrations for environmental sustainability from coast to coast. Most Republicans and Democrats became united on this issue that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act.
For many years in Houston, the now-infamous oil company Enron held an event around Earth Day to celebrate sustainability. This was just one of an estimated 240 estimated small and localized Earth Day events that happen annually to commemorate the date.
Several years after the demise of Enron and its Earth Day event, Terri Thomas, the present chair of Earth Day Houston, took action. “Something this fundamentally important to our environmental awareness needed to be recognized in Houston, the fourth most populous city in the United States, which is why 10 years ago, I brought the idea to the attention of Air Alliance Houston,” says Mrs. Thomas.
The event began small, with the blessing of the City of Houston, as a 5K fun run and small business expo. The idea was to celebrate environmental awareness and include the greater Houston community. “Therefore”, says Leo Gold, “there was definitely room for growth.” Mr. Gold was a former vendor of the Earth Day Fun Run and is now a board member of Air Alliance Houston. He remembers that people would come and enjoy the race, but then would depart with no new knowledge of sustainable practices.
The 5K and green expo continued for four years. An art contest was associated with the 5K, where students could create t-shirt designs about recycling and the world around them. Today, the Earth Day Art Contest has grown into its own environmental paintings and drawings program, featuring cash prizes for winners and a year-long art tour around the city. In 2014, the Earth Day Art Contest raised over $5,000 for local schools art programs and awarded $2,270 in cash prizes directly to aspiring young artists.
In 2008, Terri Thomas and Leo Gold teamed up to transition the Earth Day 5K into a full-fledged community festival. Discovery Green, then celebrating its first anniversary as a new urban park, agreed to host Earth Day Houston. The result was a community event that seeks to showcase everything green that our region has to offer! It seemed only natural for the Earth Day Houston event to be held at Discovery Green, whose mission is “to provide an uncommonly beautiful, urban green space in the heart of Houston that serves as a village green for our city, a source of health and happiness for our citizens, and a window into the incredible diversity of talents and traditions that enrich life in Houston.”
Earth Day Houston has continued to grow each year, both in attendance and community participation. In 2015, Air Alliance Houston will commemorate the 10 year anniversary of Earth Day Houston with the festival to be held on Saturday, April 11, 2015. A week of activities leading up to the date will include educational panels, film screenings, young professional networking events and more! Air Alliance Houston expects over 15,000 people from across the region to visit the festival, learning and networking with over 50 environmental nonprofits and 25 green businesses! The festival will continue the established and crowd-pleasing traditions of a kids’ zone, a main stage featuring local artists, a beer garden, and food trucks. But expect to see a few surprises and welcome new faces!
Earth Day Houston is more than a community festival celebrating Earth Day. It also serves as a major fundraiser for Air Alliance Houston. Profits from the festival go directly to the 26 year old organization’s mission and programming, which includes not only Earth Day Houston, but the Earth Day Art Contest, community monitoring initiatives, Ozone Theater, the Breathe Campaign, Houston Clean Air Network, and regional environmental justice and advocacy work. Air Alliance Houston is the leading public health and air quality nonprofit in the Houston region.
We hope that you will come celebrate our 10 year anniversary with us and take a moment to remember the roots of our small beginnings. Should you have a prior year’s 5K or Earth Day Houston t-shirt, consider wearing it to this year’s celebration. Or come get a new shirt featuring the winning art from the 2015 Earth Day Art Contest. We’ll see you there!