The history of Earth Day at Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- On the first Earth Day in 1970, Frisbees hovered over the HUB lawn as students wearing bell-bottom pants and tie-dyed shirts gathered to celebrate nature. April 22 marks 42 years since the first Earth Day was observed; at Penn State, the Frisbees remain, but everything else has changed.

Penn State was a different place in 1970. The HUB was half the size it is today, student population was half what is is now, in fact just about everything at Penn State was half what it is today. There was no Bryce Jordan Center, no Eisenhower Auditorium, no Eastview Terrace, and no buildings west of North Atherton except for the Water Tunnel complex. The milky way could still be seen from the HUB lawn in the wee hours of a clear night and two observatories existed on the edge of campus where the Eisenhower Parking Deck now stands.

The first Earth day evolved from the student anti-war movement and the photographs of Earth as seen from lunar orbit by the crew of Apollo 8. As the fragility of our planet became widely understood, Senator Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day to mobilize the nation in support of conservation and to fight air and water pollution.

Penn State members of Eco-Action organized the first campus Earth Day event in 1970 and led the University down the path toward current sustainability initiatives. The original Earth Day events were celebrations of alternative culture. There was as much poetry, dance and new-age philosophy as there was reverence for nature. That tradition continues today, but now there is more integration of science and engineering. In 1970, the greenhouse gas threat was known but the focus was on smog and air pollution, not carbon dioxide. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) didn’t exist and student activists were on the front lines. Earth Day helped prepare Penn State for the approaching gasoline and energy crisis.

In 1973 the first gasoline crisis struck the nation and Penn State swung into action. The Governor of Pennsylvania phoned then Penn State President John Oswald to plan our response. The first (and last) Penn State Energy Czar was appointed. Carroll Dean, Physical Plant (OPP) engineer, was given tremendous authority to start wide conservation measures across campus. Windows were sealed with plastic, large numbers of light bulbs were disconnected (the colored dots designating which bulbs would go can still be seen on overhead fixtures), and conservation overruled aesthetics in all cases. Due to the first energy crisis, Physical Plant engineers under Lloyd Niemann built the first Central Control System, which monitors and controls the energy use of most buildings on campus and still is in use today. Fifteen years ago, Office of Physical Plant engineer Doug Donovan and the Campus Energy Committee ran the first Earth Day energy contest and awarded $100 checks for the best conservation ideas presented to OPP.

Earth Day on the HUB Lawn always has been the rallying point for Penn State environmental awareness. Over the years Earth Day activities brought in outside speakers including David Orr from Oberlin College, and a host of Penn Staters including Chris Uhl, David Riley, Richard Alley, Andy Lau and many others. Just as Penn State recycling began with student activists and is now an institutional gem, Earth Day began as a student activity which has inspired hundreds of initiatives.

Physical Plant now operates dozens of conservation programs such as building commissioning, holiday shutdowns, water-saving initiatives, hydration stations and LEED certification for buildings , all of which are inspired by Earth Day. Academic initiatives such as the Green Destiny Council, the Indicators Report, and the Friday Night Lights Out program all can be linked to the philosophy of Earth Day. Penn State’s wide variety of environmental initiatives such as the Center for Sustainability, the Campus Sustainability Office, and Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment (PSIEE) might not exist today without the awareness of environmentalism started by Earth Day.

Forty-two years later, Eco-Action student activists now work closely with Erik Foley and Lydia Vandenbergh at the Campus Sustainability Office to improve and expand Penn State Earth Day offerings. The Office of Physical Plant continues to play a leading role in campus sustainability as Ford Stryker and Steve Maruszewski have directed the Finance and Business Environmental Strategy for the past decade. Their leadership has placed Penn State on the forefront of ethical and balanced sustainability.

Today the Universe still remains above the HUB lawn. The atmosphere fades off around 100 miles up, the planetary orbits cross the sky, and the galaxies float in space. It’s harder to see them now compared to 1970 due to increased light pollution, but the air is now cleaner. Penn State soon will heat campus buildings with clean natural gas, and massive environmental progress has been made. In 1970 there was minimal recycling on campus; now there are more than 5,000 bins to choose from.

As for the Frisbees hovering over the HUB lawn, well, they're still there to delight students. The difference is that in 1970 they were made of Marlex polyethylene, a lightweight form of crystalline polypropylene. Today Frisbees are made of 100-percent recycled materials consisting of 70-percent recycled plastics and 30-percent reclaimed wood. Now, that's progress! Penn State students now lead a more sustainable life due to Earth Day, but we have much more to do and the carbon clock is still ticking.

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Last Updated April 19, 2012