The Origins of Earth Day

April 22nd is Earth Day, and while we now have a great excuse to go visit a local community garden or harass our friends about recycling, there wasn’t always a day dedicated to our home planet. This day finds its roots back in the 1960s.

As the 1960s progressed, the American people began to grow concerned over our treatment of the environment. Pollution was pumped into the environment constantly, and recycling was hardly talked about, let alone practiced. This concern grew and grew until it hit a boiling point: Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969.

When rivers start catching on fire, clearly change is needed. U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, D-Wi., thought so. He drew inspiration for a new type of environmental event from the “teach-ins” that were taking place in protest of the Vietnam War, envisioning a grassroots, pro-environment demonstration that would “shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.”

Announced in the fall of 1969, the first Earth Day was set to take place on April 22nd, 1970. Dennis Hayes, a young student activist at Stanford, was dubbed the national coordinator for Earth Day, and the preparations began. When the day of the event rolled around rallies were held in major cities across America - it was a huge success.

Sen. Nelson commented:

Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.

The first Earth Day could be functionally used to mark a turning point in American attitudes. Polling done in 1971 showed that 25 percent of the United States public thought that protecting the environment was an important goal. That might seem like a low number compared to the likely results of a poll taken today, but it was a 2,500 percent increase from 1969 to 1971.

This event helped effectively launch the decade of the environment. Some of the most well known environmental efforts in the history of our country were endeavors of the ‘70s: 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. The Environmental Protection Agency itself was a product of the 1970s, established in December of 1970 by President Richard Nixon.

Earth Day’s reach has grown by leaps and bounds over the decades. It went global in 1990 and was celebrated by 200 million people in more than 140 participating countries. In 2000, the focus shifted for a while to clean energy and partnered with 5,000 environmental groups.

The Earth Day Network currently partners with 17,000 organizations from 174 different countries. Over 1 billion people get involved in Earth Day activities. These numbers make it the largest secular civic event in the world.

Now that you have a deeper appreciation for the history of Earth Day, go out and celebrate! Plant a tree, pick up some trash, donate to an environmental group you love. We only have one planet, folks - let’s take care of it.