Today, the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. This milestone provides us all an opportunity to reflect on the progress we’ve made and the work we still have to do.
The Illinois Environmental Council formed shortly after the first Earth Day in 1975, as leaders in the state looked to convert the excitement of the time into a vehicle for lasting change.
We reached out to a few long-standing members of IEC to get their perspectives to share with you.
Virginia Scott joined IEC in 1977 and later assumed the role of executive director. Virginia remains involved with IEC today, and is one of my personal heroes. She recalls that,“IEC rode in on the first wave of environmental enthusiasm that we experienced in the 1970’s. Grassroots environmentalists saw a lack of presence for their cause at the State Capitol and asked ‘Can we work together? Do we want to work together? Are our interests aligned enough?’”
Fortunately, those leaders, including first executive director Jerry Wray, had incredible foresight and answered “Yes!” on all counts.
From those early days of strategic planning on weekend retreats and late nights around a campfire, I’m proud to say that IEC established itself a trusted partner to decision-makers.
As Virginia shared with me, “Your reputation is what you trade on. Legislators and their staff have learned they can count on IEC to be a reliable source of information.”
In fact, I learned that this is not the first time someone has pointed out the shared lineages of IEC and Earth Day: Denis Hayes, who coordinated the first Earth Day, keynoted IEC’s 1988 conference and inspired the group to celebrate the then upcoming 20th anniversary on a massive scale.
Origin stories are compelling, but I’m sure you’ll agree that it is the actions we take collectively and as individuals that make a difference.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Act was the first comprehensive environmental protection law in any state, and would not have passed in 1970 without massive public outcry. Barbara Flynn Currie, Illinois State Representative from 1979 – 2019, told us that after the act passed in the State House, “well-funded interests descended upon the State Capitol in an effort to prevent passage in the Senate. If not for the effort by grassroots organizations to organize the active participation and advocacy of Senators by their constituents, the bill would have been defeated.”
This campaign made clear that if the environmental community was going to continue to win against well-resourced industry groups, they were going to need an association of their own. Since our founding, IEC has played this vital role of bringing together environmentalists and ensuring that the public has a voice in the policymaking process. As Currie points out, “We are up against polluters who would like to have an easier time spewing nasty toxins into our air and water.”
Virginia Scott explained that IEC has been able to counteract these interests and pursue an agenda of our own. “Without deep pockets we have had to do other things. We became experts at activating grassroots environmentalists, using those voices and recognizing that information is power to achieve our goals.”
Today, IEC brings together nearly 100 affiliate organizations and thousands of action takers to effectively advocate for strong environmental policies. Currie says, “IEC has better relationships with more legislators than ever before and the general public is more in tune with our environmental priorities than ever.”
I’m thankful for environmental champions like Virginia, Barbara and IEC supporters who paved the way for Earth Day and the many many victories for the environment that we’ve seen since. It is our responsibility to build upon that legacy.
Even in uncertain times, there can be no doubt that we must transition to clean energy, protect open spaces, and ensure all Illinoisans have access to safe, affordable and clean water.
I hope the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day motivates you to get outside and appreciate our planet.
Earth Day 50 Video Series
We published an outpouring of messages from environmental champions including Attorney General Kwame Raoul, state legislators, MWRD Commissioners, and our IEC leadership. Is your elected official included?