On May 4, 1970, college students at Kent State University were protesting the Vietnam War—which they viewed as unjust because many of the participants were people of color and from low-income families—when the governor called in the Ohio National Guard. The troops opened fire on the protesters, ending four young lives.
The Kent State shootings came on the heels of another pivotal event in American history. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans gathered to observe the first Earth Day, a peaceful protest against widespread environmental degradation. The Cuyahoga River flows through Kent and Cleveland, where the infamous Cuyahoga River fire of June 22, 1969, was a vivid memory. So was Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes’ response. He gave a tour of the city to highlight how the fire was symptomatic of a larger problem: urban disinvestment. Stokes told reporters that Cleveland’s rapid decline had as much to do with policies like redlining as with the ravages of polluting industry.
Golden anniversaries are a time for reflection. National environmental laws like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were enacted in 1972, and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District was founded the same year. In many ways, these efforts were a response to young Earth Day activists’ giving voice to the concerns of everyday Americans. Today, as we reflect on how the Earth Day One generation built a movement, we watch as it passes the baton to the current generation of young people rallying to stop global climate change and local inequities.
Architect Bill Doty remembers seeing Spaceship Earth author and geodesic-dome builder Buckminster Fuller as a student at Kent State University. The experience inspired him to build an “eco sphere” — a symbol of unity between humanity and nature — for the first Earth Day.
“A sphere is the most efficient shape,” says Doty. “Think of an igloo or a beehive.”
Armed with Fuller’s ideas and Scottish landscape designer Ian McHarg’s book Design with Nature, Doty’s generation pioneered green building in the 1970s, with clients who were open to experimenting with passive-solar and earth-sheltered buildings.
“The time of Earth Day One shaped my career and philosophy of life,” Doty says. “It connected me as a human being to this whole ecological web of life.”
The second wave of green buildings in Cleveland, led by firms like Doty & Miller, included construction of the Cleveland Environmental Center (2003), which strengthened the case for natural and recycled materials and renewable energy systems. Doty’s business partner, Chuck Miller, led the design of the PNC Smart Home at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (2011), the first building to achieve Passive House certification in Ohio.
Doty was a founding board member of the Earth Day Coalition, the non-profit environmental group that, until 2012, organized citizens to prevent new polluting enterprises, such as incinerators, from being built next to poor inner-city neighborhoods in Cleveland.
“I was motivated to change the world,” he says, adding, “We need a new generation to rise up.”
Sunrise Movement organizer for the Midwest and Cleveland Heights resident Akshai Singh is leading the next generation on its path of environmental activism.
“We’re simply asking for people to have a future with dignity,” he says. “We’ll ask, ‘Who are polluters, and what kind of political structures do they hold?’”
Sunrise and others like EarthRise are organizing climate strikes and sit-ins, and recruiting people with a message — that cities like Cleveland, with higher concentrations of poverty and a dwindling tree canopy, are vulnerable to climate change.
“We’re making environmental justice actionable,” says Singh. For instance, “We protest the impact of redlining on lead poisoning and air pollution. People say, ‘I’m all in.’”
Sunrise’s focus on environmental justice is an outgrowth of efforts by Cleveland environmental groups that rose in the 1990s, like EcoCity Cleveland and Earth Day Coalition (EDC). Former EDC co-directors Chris Trepal and Scott Sanders recount their work to address the common criticism of the environmental movement as predominantly white.
“It seemed environmental issues crossed all boundaries and are an amazing unifier because everyone is affected by it,” says Sanders, who recalls a community-engagement session that led to recycling in the Union-Miles neighborhood of Cleveland’s east side.
Diversity is found in healthy ecosystems, says Cleveland Museum of Natural History Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Zoology Roberta Muehlheim, who studies amphibian populations. She noticed that resilience to sudden changes, like the ranavirus disease that has devastated the spotted salamander, depends to a degree on the diversity of the pond.
“For a healthy ecosystem, you need diversity,” she says. “As you pull out pieces, like Jenga, your system becomes fragile and topples. It’s a good metaphor for (human) ecosystems.”
Cleveland has a diverse ecosystem of groups that have long worked on social and environmental justice, Trepal says.
“Cleveland has all of these little groups doing things who got a chance to meet and exchange ideas,” she says. “We’re all in it together. Barriers—too young or too old—are starting to weaken. We don’t have much time to save the planet. We can all do something.”