Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970, with over two thousand participating colleges and universities; approximately ten thousand primary and secondary schools, and hundreds of communities across the United States joining, as well. It was started by Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin. After witnessing the results of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California (in 1969), and seeing inspiration from the student anti-war movement, he realized that he could start an effective public movement to tackle environmental issues. It is important to note that this was during a time when the majority of the American public did not care about air or water pollution. Industries and people burned fossil fuels without no concern for the side effects. As such, Gaylord Nelson started an effort to raise awareness about the environment. He recruited fellow Republican Congressman Pete McCloskley to serve as his co-chair in this movement. He also recruited Denis Hayes, a national coordinator from Harvard. Hayes then helped build a staff of 85 to promote what we now call Earth Day. They selected April 22nd as the date for this nation-wide demonstration, as it fell between Spring Break and Final Exams for the majority of schools across the US.
On April 22, 1970, over 20 million Americans took to the streets, to parks, and to auditoriums to not only raise awareness about pollution, but also to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment. The movement started by Gaylord Nelson united both Republicans and Democrats. By the end of 1970, the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts were all passed, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency was formed. Nelson would later recall that “It was a gamble, but it worked.” Earth Day would not be a major event for another twenty years.
In 1990, Denis Hayes was recruited once again to organize another demonstration. This time, however, Earth Day went global. Over 200 million people in 141 countries participated in the 1990 Earth Day. Earth Day 1990 brought environmental issues to the global stage. In fact, Earth Day 1990 helped bring about the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Earth Day 1990 even prompted President Bill Clinton to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to civilians in the US to Senator Nelson for his part as the founder of Earth Day.
Senator Nelson and Bruce Anderson formed Earth Day USA in 1990. This organization coordinated the new five Earth Day celebrations (1990 to 1995). Eventually, the job of coordinating Earth Day was given to the Earth Day Network. In 2000, Hayes agreed to spearhead another Earth Day campaign focused on global warming and clean energy. This time, organizers used the Internet as its primary organization tool. This helped the organizers reach out globally with far more ease. Over 183 countries participated in this Earth Day celebration. Events were different around the world, from talking drum chains that traveled from village to village in Africa, to hundreds of thousands of people gathering outside the National Mall in Washington D.C. After 2012, Earth Day issues are focused on pollution, human overpopulation, species extinction, and increasing the use of clean, renewable resources.
Originally, the 1970 event was called the National Environment Teach-In. The name Earth Day came from a conversation between Senator Nelson and a New York advertising executive Julian Koenig. Koenig was on Nelson’s organizing committee in 1969, and said the idea came to him when he thought “Earth Day” rhymed with “birthday” (Koenig’s birthday was on April 22nd, the selected day for the demonstration). Nelson would continue to call the event the National Environment Teach-In, but Denis Hayes would use the term Earth Day in his communications, while the press also used Earth Day.
This year will mark the 46th anniversary of Earth day. April 22nd, 2020 will mark its 50th anniversary.
Written and Animated by Sebastian Planas.