The History of Earth Day

The History of Earth Day

In the 1960s, there were no environmental laws protecting our air and waters and no Environmental Protection Agency. Industries were spewing out pollution without much fear of legal repercussion. Dirty air and water seemed to be the norm. In addition, war was raging in Vietnam, and college students and the counterculture in the United States protested nationwide in opposition to it.

Thankfully, there were a few people who were working on promoting environmental protection. One such man was Gaylord Nelson, the father of Earth Day. Nelson had an idea that has now grown into a worldwide celebration for the planet.

Nelson served two terms as the Governor of Wisconsin, and it was here where he started his environmental legacy and earned the title, “the Conservation Governor.” In 1962, Nelson was elected to the US Senate, and for 18 years worked to bring environmental issues to the national stage.

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/earthdayhistoryblog/GaylordNelson_RIver.jpgSenator Gaylord Nelson overlooking the St. Croix River between Minnesota and Wisconsin,
a waterway he worked to protect as the first 'Wild and Scenic River' in the United States.

The Idea

In the 1960s, Senator Nelson was intrigued by how successful the anti-war “teach-ins” were on mobilizing college students to protest the Vietnam War. The Senator wanted to harness the energy from the anti-war movement to raise the public’s awareness about environmental issues. Nelson envisioned, a "national teach-in on the environment" that could put these issues in the national spotlight and on a political agenda

In September 1969, Nelson called for Americans to come together next spring for a day dedicated to environmental education. His idea was met with great enthusiasm, so much so that Nelson had to establish a separate organization called Environmental Teach-In, Inc. to help people prepare for the nationwide event.

Nelson hired Denis Hayes, a former intern, to be the national coordinator for the teach-in, who built a staff of 85 to promote events across the country. Nelson also established a steering committee of scientists, academics, environmentalists, and students, and persuaded Congressman Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican, to serve as his co-chair.

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/earthdayhistoryblog/Hayes_office.jpgDennis Hayes at the Environmental Teach-In, Inc
Because there were unique ecological problems facing different parts of the country, Nelson thought that each community should celebrate Earth Day in its own way. The national office served to promote the grassroots activities taking place across the country.  

 

The Day

On April 22, 1970, Americans marched and demonstrated in the streets for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive rallies across the US. It was estimated 20 million people, from 10,000 elementary and high schools, 2,000 colleges, and over 1,000 communities participated that day. (It is rumored that the date April 22 was chosen because it fell between colleges’ spring breaks and final exams. 

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/earthdayhistoryblog/NYT_Front_Page.jpgThousands gathered in New York City on the first Earth Day in 1970.

Not only did the first Earth Day turn out an impressive amount of people, it also achieved an unusual political alignment. Republicans and Democrats and people from all demographics - union members, farmers, scientists, and politicians - came together for the environment

Even more impressive is that all of the organizing was done without emails, cell phones, the internet, or even fax machines! This makes the success of the first Earth Day even more incredible.

The Aftermath

Senator Nelson’s idea had worked. The first Earth Day gave environmental issues national and political attention. It influenced the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and numerous laws that protect our environment including:

  • the Clean Air Act
  • the Water Quality Improvement Act
  • the Water Pollution and Control Act Amendments
  • the Resource Recovery Act
  • the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
  • the Toxic Substances Control Act
  • the Occupational Safety and Health Act
  • the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act
  • the Endangered Species Act
  • the Safe Drinking Water Act
  • the Federal Land Policy and Management Act
  • the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act

Earth Day 1990 went global, mobilizing over 200 million people in 141 countries. This put environmental issues on the world stage, paving the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Ten years later, Earth Day 2000 focused on climate change and clean energy. Approximately 5,000 environmental groups and 184 countries participated, reaching hundreds of millions of people. 

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/earthdayhistoryblog/Nelson_MOF.jpgIn 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom -
the highest honor given to civilians in the United States - for his role as Earth Day founder.

Gaylord Nelson died in July 2005, but his legacy still lives on. The first Earth Day started a movement of people whose common goal is keeping our planet healthy. Today, it is estimated that Earth Day is celebrated by over a billion people worldwide. With the political climate in our nation’s capital, we need to be more vigilant than ever. It’s up to us now. Let’s keep this momentum going!

For ideas on how you can celebrate this year, read our blog 8 Ways to Celebrate Earth Week in 2018.

Also, thinking ahead, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The Earth Day Network, the global coordinator of Earth Day, is counting down.

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