50th anniversary of Earth Day

Jessica Cheng ’20, Yulia Gu ’21, Neha Sathishkumar ’21, Dennis Zhang ’20 and Richard Zhu ’22, leaders of the Peddie Environmental & Sustainability Team (PEST), spoke with Billy Almond ’71, who helped organize the activities at Peddie on the first-ever Earth Day, April 22, 1970.

Billy Almond ’71 developed a love for environmentalism not long after he came to Peddie as a sophomore in the fall of 1968. Amidst the Vietnam War and growing unrest, America was experiencing a remarkable period of rebellious youth spirit. At Peddie, this revolutionary spirit resulted in the historic Longstreet Hall takeover on April 9, 1970 (a student protest of campus rules) and, according to Almond, a growing environmental movement. 

Almond recalled that many students at Peddie joined the environmental movement after taking an English department elective called “Nature.” “Peddie English teachers, inspired by writers like Thoreau, sought to foster an independent spirit and climate of activism at the school,” he said. 

When national Earth Day organizers reached out about launching a day of environmentalism, Almond and his classmates joined in. They celebrated this new worldwide event by cleaning up Peddie Lake at sunrise. 

Cleaning Peddie Lake Earth Day April 22, 1970

Billy Almond '71 recalled that about half of the student body cleaned up Peddie Lake during the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

“I would say 150, about half the student body was there,” Almond recollected. “How could the administration get upset with us? We cleaned your lake up.”

Not yet aware of the Earth Day that Almond and the Peddie community celebrated 50 years ago, PEST coincidentally spearheaded an effort last year to continue such a tradition at Peddie.

Earth Day is now a school-recognized week of service, and last year over 300 Peddie students and faculty members joined hands with other organizations, such as the New Jersey Watershed Commission and Meadow Lakes senior living community, in service to the environment. At the end of the weeklong celebration, the community planted a lake erosion barrier, rehabilitated a park, cleaned up a beach and built floating wetlands, among other accomplishments. 

Admittedly, COVID-19 changed the plans for this year’s celebration. Nonetheless, PEST members worked tirelessly to continue the tradition and organized a virtual Earth Day that included citizen climate initiatives and virtual climate strikes.

Earth Day 1970

Peddie students climb a tree on campus during the 1970 Earth Day celebrations.

PEST engages in environmental activism in many other ways. The team authors a weekly schoolwide newsletter with simple tips on how to practice a more sustainable lifestyle, and organizes guest speakers. They also introduced a composting program and successfully instituted a ban on Styrofoam cups in the dining hall. Since the club implemented composting last year, Peddie estimates it has saved close to 20 tons of food waste from ending up in landfills.

Not only does PEST aim for sustainability on campus, but they are also active in the greater Hightstown community. The team has reached out to local schools as part of an interschool coalition that will work together on initiatives going forward.

Almond, now a sustainable landscape architect in Virginia Beach, offered this advice for those interested in conservation: “Ask yourself, what’s the goal? What do you want to do when you grow up? Whatever it is you do, the litmus test is, would you get up and do it every day even if you weren’t paid?”

The most successful environmentalists have found one thing to focus on, Almond stressed. “When you say you’re concerned about the environment, what part of the environment? Because many parts make up the whole, and thinking of the environment as one big thing that needs saving makes the task daunting and perhaps impossible. Everyone can learn from this: Pick one thing that interests you, that you would love to do every day, and do it with a fervent passion that can last you a lifetime.”