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The History of Earth Day

  • 4 min read

Each year on April 22nd, we celebrate Earth Day as an opportunity to appreciate our world, but importantly, also to bring attention to the environmental challenges that we face. Since 1970 Americans and more recently the global community have recognized Earth Day as an opportunity to spread awareness, facilitate environmental progress, and mark the anniversary of what can be considered the modern environmental movement. The origin story of this annual holiday in one was based on a critical need in the United States and the vision of a junior senator from Wisconsin. 

The Need & The Idea

As America entered the 20th-century modern industry was growing rapidly, but so were the impacts on the environment. The world’s natural resources were being consumed at an increasing rate, air pollution was becoming more prevalent, and rivers, lakes, and oceans were becoming polluted with toxins. The detrimental effects of unchecked and unregulated industrial activity were beginning to show. 

However, as the impact of human consumption became more prevalent, public awareness began to grow. Events like the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’ New York Times bestseller Silent Spring and the 1969 fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had started to bring tremendous amounts of attention to the environment, pollutants, lack of environmental regulation, and public health. This growing awareness coupled with a population in the United States, which became much more politically active, set the stage for a key turning point. 

In 1970 Senator Gaylord Nelson, a junior senator from Wisconsin, who having witnessed both the devastating impact humans were having on the environment and the drive and conviction of a motivated public, began to formulate an idea. Recognizing the opportunity for change, Senator Nelson, with the assistance of Congressman Pete McCloskey and activist Denis Hayes started to organize teach-ins (inspired by the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins) on campuses around the country. With student participation in mind, the date April 22nd was strategically chosen as it fell between universities’ spring break and final exams.

However, Nelson, McCloskey, and Hayes’ concept of teach-ins quickly gained momentum and expanded beyond campuses to include a broad range of organizations, faith groups, and more. With the goal of raising environmental awareness and establishing a national event, the teach-ins were quickly rebranded as Earth Day, and excitement and anticipation for the event grew exponentially. 

Every year Earth Day helps motivate over 1 billion people worldwide to address the critical challenges that face our environment and create lasting change. 

Earth Day Inspires Change

The first Earth Day event was held on April 22 1970 and inspired an estimated 20-million Americans to rally against the harmful impacts of unchecked industrial growth. American’s were galvanized into action, protesting a wide range of environmental issues that affected all members of the population and in all regions. With all the support it had gained, Earth Day struck a political chord with Republicans and Democrats, who came together to help address the need for fundamental change. This alignment of political parties and the overwhelming public support laid the groundwork for creating the Environmental Protection Agency by the end of 1970. Furthermore, Congress went on to pass the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act all soon after the first Earth Day. With its deep connection to students and education, the Institute for Environmental Studies was founded in 1970 to act as an incubator for research and solutions for the world’s environmental challenges. The institute still operates today but has been renamed the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies after the former senator and governor of Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson. 

Going Global

Earth Day was too good and too important of an idea to remain limited to the United States, and as 1990 approached, the desire to go global grew. In a similar fashion as before, leaders helped organize groups worldwide in support of Earth Day and raise awareness for environmental issues. The effort to expand Earth Day to become a global event was a massive success, with 141 countries participating in Earth Day 1990. This success firmly established Earth Day as an annual event worldwide and inspired the United Nations Earth Summit in 1992. 

Earth Day Today

Earth Day March

Having recently celebrated its 50th anniversary (Earth Day 2020), the annual event is not only still going strong but continuing to gain greater attention. Over the last 50 years, Earth Day has brought awareness to and championed numerous different causes, including air and water pollution, pesticide and chemical use, recycling, and more. Currently, climate change, environmental destruction, climate justice, and sustainable living are key areas of focus. Education remains a central component of the event each year. Earth Day 2021 even includes a global youth climate summit and numerous workshops and panels fostering greater awareness. 

To learn more about Earth Day 2021, Click Here.

Lessons From Earth Day History

In 1970 Earth Day proved to be the catalyst for dramatic change within the United States. A short while later, it was creating positive changes across the globe. As we examine Earth Day’s history and its roots, three main themes emerge: 1) a lot of littles make a big 2) education is an essential component of change 3) coming together as a community of committed individuals creates awareness. Every year Earth Day helps motivate over 1 billion people worldwide to address the critical challenges that face our environment and create lasting change. 

Written by Henry Palmer