Zimmerman: Earth Day started in San Jose
Coyote Valley, one of the city's vast open spaces, is pictured in this file photo.

Tomorrow is Earth Day, so today is a great opportunity to introduce myself and this new environmentally-focused column to the readers of the San Jose Spotlight. This column and Earth Day share the same goal (albeit on very different scales): to educate, inform, and empower change.

My goal is to introduce you to the big ideas emerging from the modern environmental movement and then explore how these ideas translate into real issues — and real solutions — here in San Jose and Santa Clara County.

The concept of “the environment” covers a lot of ground and thus offers a lot of opportunity to better understand the impact of climate change on our communities. As a long-time environmental advocate and a PhD in political science, I have learned that there are few aspects of our lives that are not influenced by our natural environment. With this column, I’m looking forward to a diverse set of conversations on topics of interest to the people of San Jose, including environmental justice, climate tipping points, green vs. zero-carbon energy, current environmental legislation and much more.

The idea for Earth Day actually originated in San Jose.

Gaylord Nelson, the event’s eventual founder, graduated from San Jose State University with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1939. Years later, in 1969, U.S. Sen. Nelson (actually the senator from Wisconsin), was so disturbed by the impacts of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara that he decided to organize a single day for the entire country to “demonstrate against the impacts of 150 years of industrial development which had left a growing legacy of serious human health impacts.

The first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970, is widely considered the start of the modern environmental movement. Over 20 million people, approximately 10% of the U.S. US population at the time, participated in the first Earth Day. It was the largest public protest the United States had ever seen and the start of a profound shift where individual and issue-specific movements began to recognize that they all operated from “similar sets of values” and that if they supported each other they could be “much stronger as a whole than they were individually.”

This movement linked environmental issues with quality-of-life issues which ultimately led to the establishment of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The organizer of the first Earth Day, Stanford graduate Denis Hayes, said last year that the greatest accomplishment of the first Earth Day and the subsequent movement has been that it drove the creation of legislation with “human health” at the center and fostered “a respect for the diversity of life and the healthiness of the environment.”

But there’s still much work to do.

A 2019 poll showed that 67% of Americans felt that the federal government was doing too little to address climate change. And 63% said that their local community was being impacted by climate change.

The impacts are clear here in San Jose. We need to look no further than last year’s record-setting fires. While public opinion is pro-environment, public action is not. Only about one in four Americans indicated that they live in such a way as to always protect the environment.

That brings me to another goal of this column: to inform activism. It is clear that people care about the environment but are less comfortable with how to actively advocate for and protect it. With this in mind, each month this column will have suggestions on how you can engage with your community and your city on behalf of the environment.

For this month, my suggestion is to do something — it does not matter how big or little, but take one small action.You could attend one of the many Earth Day events in San Jose. Or take a moment to catch up on Climate Smart San Jose, the city’s plan to address climate change. If you are interested in the legislative side of activism, there are many bills going through the California Legislature this session which would have a direct impact on the fight against climate change.

One of the most promising actually comes from our local Sen. Dave Cortese, who may be your legislator. Learn more about his decarbonization package here and sign up for updates. Indicate your support for these bills by writing a letter, calling or testifying in committee.

Tomorrow is Earth Day. It can be a day like any other, or it could be the beginning of the end of the climate crisis. It is our choice.

San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a Climate Reality Leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley Chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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