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Celebrate Earth Day by Learning the History Behind the Famous Environmental Holiday

Celebrate Earth Day by Learning the History Behind the Famous Environmental Holiday

  |     |   Holidays, Local Events

Earth Day was established in 1970 as a day dedicated to environmental education, and Earth Day 2022 will take place on April 22. The holiday has grown into a global phenomenon that is sometimes extended into Earth Week, a full week of events centered on green living and addressing the climate crisis.

Earth Day began as a "national teach-in on the environment," inspired by 1960s protests, and was held on April 22 to reach as many students as possible on university campuses. Senator Gaylord Nelson came up with the idea, and it was held on April 22 to reach as many students as possible on university campuses. Nelson hoped to bring environmental issues into the national spotlight by raising public awareness of pollution.

Earth Day History

By the early 1960s, Americans were becoming more aware of pollution's negative effects on the environment. Rachel Carson's best-selling book Silent Spring, published in 1962, raised the specter of pesticides' harmful effects on the American countryside. A fire on Cleveland's Cuyahoga River in 1969 raised the issue of chemical waste disposal later in the decade. Protecting the planet's natural resources had not previously been on the national political agenda, and the number of activists concerned with large-scale issues such as industrial pollution had been small. 

Factories pumped pollutants into the air, lakes, and rivers with little legal repercussions. Large, gas-guzzling automobiles were considered a symbol of wealth. Recycling was only known by a small percentage of the American population, let alone practiced.

Did you realize? A highlight of the United Nations' Earth Day celebration in New York City is the ringing of the Peace Bell, a gift from Japan, at the exact moment of the vernal equinox.

Who Invented Earth Day and When Was It First Celebrated?

Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, was elected to the United States Senate in 1962 with the goal of convincing the federal government that the planet was in jeopardy. After being inspired by anti-Vietnam War "teach-ins" on college campuses across the country, Nelson founded Earth Day in 1969. He is considered one of the modern environmental movement's leaders. "To shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda," Nelson proposed a large-scale, grassroots environmental protest.

In the fall of 1969, Nelson introduced the concept of Earth Day at a conference in Seattle, inviting the entire country to participate. He later recalled:

The story was reported by wire services from coast to coast. The reaction was ecstatic. It took off like a rocket. From all over the country, telegrams, letters, and phone calls poured in. "The American people finally had a platform to express their concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air, and they did so with spectacular zeal.

Denis Hayes, a young activist who had previously served as the student president of Stanford University, was chosen as Earth Day's national coordinator, and he orchestrated the event with the help of an army of student volunteers and several staff members from Nelson's Senate office. Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level, Nelson claims. We didn't have the time or resources to organize 20 million demonstrators, as well as thousands of schools and local communities. That was the most remarkable aspect of Earth Day. It was self-organized.

Rallies were held in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and most other American cities on April 22, 1970, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Mayor John Lindsay of New York City shut down a section of Fifth Avenue for several hours and spoke alongside actors Paul Newman and Ali McGraw at a rally in Union Square. Thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C. to hear speeches and performances by singer Pete Seeger and others, and Congress took a break to speak to their constituents at Earth Day events.

The first Earth Day was a success in terms of raising public awareness and changing public attitudes about environmental issues. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, "public opinion polls indicate that Earth Day 1970 resulted in a permanent change in national priorities." When polled in May 1971, 25% of Americans said environmental protection was a top priority, a 2,500 percent increase from 1969. "Earth Day, as Senator Nelson later put it, "started the environmental decade with a bang." 

The Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act were all major pieces of environmental legislation passed during the 1970s. In December 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established, with the mission of protecting human health and safeguarding the natural environment—air, water, and land.

What Are Your Plans for Earth Day?

Since 1970, Earth Day celebrations have grown in popularity. Earth Day went global in 1990, according to the Earth Day Network (EDN), a nonprofit organization that coordinates Earth Day activities, with 200 million people participating in over 140 countries. According to EDN, Earth Day 2000 focused on clean energy and was attended by hundreds of millions of people from 184 countries and 5,000 environmental organizations. There was something for everyone, from a traveling, talking drum chain in Gabon, Africa, to a crowd of hundreds of thousands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

In 174 countries, the Earth Day Network now has over 17,000 partners and organizations. According to EDN, Earth Day activities are attended by over one billion people, making it "the world's largest secular civic event."

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