Earth Day 1970 Changed My Life

The spring of 1970 was tumultuous. I was a freshman at Smith College in Massachusetts. While known for its traditions, many events that had occurred for multiple decades were discarded; course distributive requirements relaxed. Rules and tradition seemed trivial to the events of the day.

Still feeling the effects of major national catastrophes, including the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968, and the Vietnam War was taking center stage. The Moratorium, a massive demonstration and sit-in, had started in October 1969.

Spring classes in many colleges could be taken pass/fail, and the rumor was that final exams would be take-home and the college might close early. We can relate today.

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Carol Collier and Vice President Al Gore attended the December 2015 United Nations Climate Conference in Paris

What other bad news could there be? Our Earth was in terrible shape and due to our actions (or inactions). Rachel Carson had written Silent Spring in 1962, but it was when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire in 1969 that people began to wake up.

There was also the oil spill in Santa Barbara Calif., a biodiverse estuary/marine system. People watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite could see the devastation to the beaches, fish and shore birds. What were we doing to our Earth?

It was time to realize that: “The Earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth” — Marlee Matlin.

earth day button
Collier’s Earth Day button circa 1970

Started in Wisconsin by Senator Gaylord Nelson, Aug. 22, 1970 was the day campuses and cities all over the nation planned activities to celebrate the Earth and also inform about the mega environmental problems occurring in the nation and the world. As an aside, when in grad school at the University of Pennsylvania, I learned that it was Ian McHarg and professors in the Landscape Architecture and Planning programs who started not Earth Day, but the first Earth Week in Philadelphia.

I was always interested in science and the environment, having grown up as a “free range child” along the bays and marshes of New Jersey. In the spring of my freshman year, I was still not sure of my major — maybe math, maybe theater tech or movie production — wide reaching. Earth Day changed that.

Sitting through a series of documentaries showing environmental degradation on the grand scale and listening to professors and guests revealing the localized impacts to our creeks and pollution in our air resources, I knew I had to do something. I remember being so moved and upset. The Smith College Biology Department was expanding its environmental courses and had just hired a population ecologist. The decision was made!

carol in kayak
A favorite sport

I was a biology major and never looked back. I loved the courses and field work. But then what? When graduated, I found that there was a dearth of environmental positions available, so I became a “white coat” research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. With the ability to take graduate courses for free, I signed up for Dr. Ruth Patrick’s Introduction to Limnology course.

This was the second grounding for my environmental career. With labs and field work in river and estuary ecology at the Academy of Natural Sciences and Stroud Water Research Center (then part of the Academy), I knew my direction was set. I went on to receive my master’s in environmental planning and found the sweet spot between science and policy, always with a preference for water-related issues.

I have been lucky enough to work in the environmental field my whole professional life, first in the private sector than in government with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and as Executive Director of the Delaware River Basin Commission.

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A favorite mentor, Dr. Ruth Patrick

Dr. Patrick was my mentor for 40 years, and I am so glad I am now working at the Academy with the incredible staff of the Patrick Center for Environmental Research. As Edward O. Wilson noted in his Letters to a Young Scientist, 2013: “It is quite simple: put passion ahead of training. … Decision and hard work based on enduring passion will never fail you.”

The first Earth Day ignited my Passion.


By Carol R. Collier, Academy Senior Advisor, Watershed Management and Policy


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