In the years leading up to the first Earth Day, the planet was not doing so well. Americans were consuming large amounts of leaded gas through large (and inefficient) automobiles, industries were contaminating the environment with smoke and sludge, and air pollution was commonly accepted as “the smell of prosperity.” The world was oblivious to the environmental concerns and threats a polluted planet posed to human health, all while Earth was taking a turn for the worst. Something had to be done, and quickly.
Elected to the United States Senate in 1962, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a democrat from Wisconsin, was determined to convince the federal government that the planet was at risk. Nelson had been concerned about the deteriorating environment for a long time, but when he witnessed the drastic consequences of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, he became inclined to change the way the world viewed the environment. Nelson developed the idea for “Earth Day” after being inspired by the anti-Vietnam "teach-ins" that were primarily taking place on college campuses around the United States at the time. With Denis Hayes, a young activist who had served as the student president at Stanford University, as Nelson’s selected national coordinator of his proposed national event, Earth Day was organized. Keeping their intended audience in mind, April 22nd was chosen as the day this event would take place, since it fell in between spring break and finals, hence maximizing the greatest student participation.
Senator Gaylord Nelson envisioned a large-scale environmental demonstration to “shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda,” and this is exactly what happened. The Earth Day idea was announced at a conference in the fall of 1969 and Nelson and his supporters invited the entire nation to get involved. “The wire services carried the story from coast to coast,” Nelson had said in an interview, “It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express their concerns about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air – and they did so with spectacular exuberance”. Earth Day had been taken under the wing of millions of Americans.
The first Earth Day took place on April 22nd, 1970. Rallies were held in almost every single major American city, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, this day was effective at raising awareness about environmental issues and transforming public attitudes, and “public opinion polls indicate that a permanent change in national priorities followed Earth Day 1970, and when polled in May 1971, twenty-five percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment ro be an important goal.” As Senator Nelson put it later on, “Earth Day 1970 kicked off the environmental decade with a bang.” He was proven to be correct, because in the years following the first Earth Day, several important pieces of environmental legislation were passed, among them the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, among many others.
Since 1970, Earth Day celebrations and events have increased exponentially. In 1990, Earth day became global, and according to the Earth Day Network (EDN), a non-profit organization that coordinates Earth Day activities, nearly two-hundred million people in over 140 countries participated. Today, over one billion are involved in Earth Day events, making it the “largest secular civic event in the world.” Earth Day 2022 is set to take place on Friday, April 22nd, and the environment still needs our help. Now is the time for the courage to preserve and protect our health, our families, and our livelihoods, and it is time to take action and invest in the planet Earth to make the world a better, and healthier, place to live in.
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History.com Editors. “Earth Day 2022.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 27 Oct. 2009, https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/earth-day.
“The History of Earth Day.” Earth Day, 2 July 2021, https://www.earthday.org/history/.
EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/.
“Environmental Threats.” WWF, World Wildlife Fund, https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats.
Hamilton, Jon. “How California's Worst Oil Spill Turned Beaches Black and the Nation Green.” NPR, NPR, 28 Jan. 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/28/688219307/how-californias-worst-oil-spill-turned-beaches-black-and-the-nation-green.
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EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/history/epa-history-earth-day.
“EPA and a Brief History of Environmental Law in the United States.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 17 June 2016, https://cfpub.epa.gov/si/si_public_record_Report.cfm?Lab=NERL&dirEntryId=319430.