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The History of Earth Day 

History of Earth Day

Earth Day commemorates the anniversary of the modern environmental movement. It’s a day we celebrate and acknowledge how far we’ve come in the quest towards sustainability as well as how far we still need to go to protect our precious planet. On the first Earth Day, people all over the United States took to the streets to educate the general public and push for real change. This lead to a groundswell of awareness around sustainability that we can thank for many of the environmental protections we enjoy today. 

A Silent Spring 

Before 1970 we had no regulations in place to protect our air and waterways. As a result, we were faced with a polluted environment that threatened the health of humans, animals, and entire ecosystems. The devastation of 150 years of industrial development was starting to become more and more problematic. 

These issues didn’t surface in the mainstream until Rachel Carson released her New York Times bestseller, Silent Spring, in 1962. It detailed the adverse environmental impacts caused by unchecked pesticide use. More than 500,000 copies sold in 24 countries and the world woke up to the risk pollution posed for all living organisms. 

Silent Spring transformed conversations around our role in protecting the planet. Public consciousness around the poor state of our planet bubbled to the surface. Senator Gaylord Nelson, a junior senator from Wisconsin, decided he wanted to do more to push for change after witnessing the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969. He took a page out of the anti-war movement to launch an ambitious campaign called Earth Day. 

The First Earth Day 

With Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey as co-chair and activist Denis Hayes as an organizer, the first Earth Day started to take form under Senator Nelson’s lead. They planned it for April 22, 1970. Anticipating a large turnout, they hired a staff of 85 people throughout the country to pull off this event. Hayes played an especially important role in helping to create teach-in materials for the day of the campaign.  

Activist Denis Hayes on Earth Day in 1970

The event was a massive success. Roughly 20 million individuals all over the country came out to voice their concern about pollution and its effects on the planet. That 10% of the total population of the United States at the time. Activists marched in the streets, met up in parks, and held educational events in auditoriums.

The First Earth Day in Colorado 

Colorado held one of the most notable Earth Day events in 1970. Participants biked and walked to the Capitol to display an alternative to gas-powered vehicles. There was also a 12-hour teach-in held at Currigan Hall. Senator Nelson himself was one of the panelists. During his speech, he stressed the importance of creating a federally subsidized environmental program and an "ecology congress" to regulate the use of land, water, and pesticides. 

Impact and Legacy 

To say the first Earth Day made a splash is an understatement. It absolutely rocked our collective understanding of pollution and our role in protecting the planet. Not long after the campaign, the United States Environmental Protection Agency was formed in December 1970. That same year the first environmental laws were ratified. This included the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act.

Every year since 1970, the United States celebrates Earth Day on April 22nd. It’s a time to take stalk of our efforts so far and continue to push for the important changes we still need to make. In 1990, Denis Hayes organized the first global Earth Day. Over 200 million people from 141 different countries joined in. This lead to a global boost in recycling and helped pave way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit. Bill Clinton awarded Hayes with the Presidential Medal of Freedom soon after.

Earth Day protest Image credit: Green Biz

Today we continue to celebrate Earth Day all over the world. It’s recognized as the largest international secular observance. With the emergence of the internet, events are even easier to organize. Participation continues to grow every year. This year (2021) will mark 51 years since the first Earth Day. 

How Do I Celebrate Earth Day?

We are still in drastic need of change if we want to get ahead of climate change and get our planet to a healthier place. This Earth Day, be sure to spend some time outdoors and enjoy the beauty of our planet. If you want to go a step further, try to take accountability for your personal impact and do your part to fight for structural change. This may sound like a lofty task but there are plenty of attainable ways to incorporate this into your Earth Day celebration. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Plant a tree
  • Sign a petition 
  • Do a community cleanup 
  • Do a no plastic challenge
  • Attend an educational event 
  • Take a nature walk 
  • Bike to work
  • Take public transport
  • Contact your local lawmakers