Earth Day has taken on different manifestations over the course of its 53-year history but to some of us who recall the first one, its purpose remains intact. Credit for the first Earth Day goes to Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin who was a passionate environmentalist at a time when conservation wasn’t a politicized topic or a particularly notable one. He felt the need to expose the environmental damage of unregulated pollution, chemical toxicity, and habitat destruction.
He also wisely realized that it was an intergenerational issue, and as a result, children and adults alike celebrated it together on April 22, 1970.
Not restricted by borders, race, gender or age, Senator Nelson and the many talented volunteers created an event that has remained in the public conscience for half a century. We can argue that it hasn’t curbed our appetite for fossil fuels or halted climate change effectively enough, and that it is reserved for a single day in April. And while I agree with that in part, as I laid out in my book in 2021, it has never lost its original focus, which is a universal sentiment that we need to better care for our planet. It has become apparent that the modern environmental movement is driven by our active youth. And why wouldn’t they be at the forefront? We’ve handed them the keys to a Cadillac on the perch of a cliffside collapse. They don’t see Earth Day as just one day of the year. Neither do I.
How do we make the principles of Earth Day a daily commitment within our hospitality industry to strike the ecological balance that Gaylord Nelson passionately sought? I have been seeking answers to this question from owners and investors, developers, general managers, designers, manufacturers, procurement companies, and most everyone else for the past 20 years. There are some encouraging signs: energy efficient properties, culture and nature sensitive developments, resource use reductions, greenhouse gas reporting and decarbonization programs, diversity in staffs and leadership, biomimetic products and services, and even a few companies that have divested their portfolios of fossil fuels. I’d like to propose another step: Hire a sustainability intern from the pool of young talent studying environmental or sustainable hospitality curriculum at a local institution. Engage them and give them a seat at the table. Perhaps if we hear their pleas for action, we may better understand why climate change is detrimental to not only healthy habitat but to their mental and physical health.
Inspired by Young People
It has been my privilege to mentor young men and women on the need for sustainable practices within many disciplines. The curious reaction I have received from all of this is one of inspiration not dismissal. Their desire for engagement and action is an inexorable force; I imagine that’s what Gaylord Nelson discovered back in 1970. Innovation comes from a range of sources and is not restricted by age and experience. Consider Boyan Slat, founder of the The Ocean Cleanup organization. He was a teenager when he presented his concepts for cleaning up all the plastic residue floating in our oceans. His organization is one of the successful endeavors tackling the ecological disaster that is ocean plastic. Or consider the two college students at RPI, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, who founded the mycelium materials company, Ecovative. Their mushroom tech products have replaced both fossil fuel-based and animal-based goods. Most people now are familiar with Greta Thunberg, but fewer may recognize the name Alexandria Villaseñor. At the tender age of 13, Alexandria began a climate strike in front of the UN Headquarters in 2018 that lasted for two years. By the time she was 15, she had founded Earth Rising, which helps our teens take on an active role in the climate movement here in the U.S., as well as across the globe. I have been present at Youth for Climate strikes and I have been on stage with some young activists for the past few years. They don’t see the problem as an economic problem, more one of fairness.
As we approach Earth Day 53, there is still time to act, but the five decades since Senator Nelson’s teach-ins of 1970 must yield more substantial results. The hospitality industry is a significant one, and tourism larger yet, so we bear responsibility for future generations. If we lack ideas or inspiration, look to our children. If we cannot weigh out the good and bad, look to our children. If we haven’t created a sustainable plan for the future, look to our children. Fortunately, Gaylord Nelson’s legacy has been carried on by his children, including his daughter, Tia Nelson. When I asked her about where she finds her inspiration, she told me, “Hope wells in me when I interact with youth groups and passionate environmentalists. I am forever moved by the power of individual action and that Earth Day endures and continues to inspire new generations is of great satisfaction to me.” It is inspiring to me also to see young men and women taking on the challenge of sustaining the planet. And I am constantly reminded that Earth Day multiplied by 365 is an act of universal and generational love every day.
About the Author:
David C. Mahood, Principal, Olive Designs, LLC, LEED AP, is a sustainability consultant and environment writer and lecturer. He holds a BA from the College of Wooster, and an MBA in Sustainability from San Francisco Institute of Architecture. Mahood has 30 years of experience in commercial furnishings, which includes starting Olive Designs in 1998, a pioneer company in green furniture manufacturing. Olive Designs, LLC provides a range of sustainability training and consulting services for the hospitality, residential, and commercial furnishings industry. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including Interiors and Sources, Contract, International Ecotourism Society, The Environmental Blog, NEWH Magazine and Living Green Magazine. As of 2017, Olive Designs, LLC became the publishing agent for both of David Mahood’s books: One Green Deed Spawns Another, November, 2017, and Kings of a Lonely Kingdom, August, 2021.