History of Earth Day

History of Earth Day

THE IDEA FOR THE FIRST EARTH DAY

Senator Gaylord Nelson, a junior senator from Wisconsin, had long been concerned about the deteriorating environment in the United States. In January 1969, he and many others witnessed the ravages of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California.  Inspired by the student anti-war movement, Senator Nelson wanted to harness the energy of student anti-war protests with a new public consciousness about air and water pollution. Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “teach-in” on college campuses and got Pete McCloskey, a  Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair.  They recruited Denis Hayes, a young activist, to organize the campus teach-ins and they choose April 22, a weekday falling between Spring Break and Final Exams, to maximize student participation. Recognizing its potential to inspire all Americans, Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events and the effort soon broadened to include a wide range of organizations, faith groups, and others.  They changed the name to Earth Day, which sparked national media attention, and the idea caught on across the country. Earth Day inspired 20 million Americans, 10% of the total population of the United States at the time, to take to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate against the impacts of 150 years of industrial development which had a lot of serious human health impacts. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment and there were massive coast-to-coast rallies in cities, towns, and communities.

Groups that had been fighting individually against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife united on Earth Day. Earth Day 1970 also achieved a rare political alignment, getting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban dwellers and farmers, business and labor leaders. By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of other environmental laws, including the National Environmental Education Act,  the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act.  Two years later Congress passed the Clean Water Act.  A year after that, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act and soon after the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. These laws have protected millions of men, women and children from disease and death and have protected hundreds of species from extinction.

1990: EARTH DAY GOES GLOBAL

As 1990 approached, a group of environmental leaders approached Denis Hayes to once again organize another major campaign for the planet. This time, Earth Day went global, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries and lifting environmental issues onto the world stage. Earth Day 1990 gave a big boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It also prompted President Bill Clinton to award Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to civilians in the United States, for his role as Earth Day founder.

EARTH DAY FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM

As the millennium approached, Hayes agreed to head another campaign, this time focused on global warming and a push for clean energy. With 5,000 environmental groups in a record 184 countries reaching out to hundreds of millions of people, Earth Day 2000 built both global and local conversations, and used the power of the Internet to organize activists around the world, while also featuring a drum chain that traveled from village to village in Gabon, Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people also gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC for a First Amendment Rally.

30 years after its founding, Earth Day 2000 sent world leaders a loud and clear message: Citizens around the world wanted quick and decisive action on global warming and clean energy.

EARTH DAY 2010

Earth Day 2010 came at a time of great challenge for the environmental community to combat the rise of climate change deniers, oil lobbyists, politicians, a disinterested public, and a divided environmental community with the collective power of global environmental activism. However, Earth Day prevailed and EARTHDAY.ORG reestablished Earth Day as a major moment for global action for the environment.

Since then EARTHDAY.ORG has brought hundreds of millions of people into the environmental movement.  Earth Day engages more than 1 billion people every year and has become a major influence in the protection of the planet.

EARTH DAY TODAY

Today, Earth Day is widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world, marked by more than a billion people every year as a day of action to change human behavior and create global, national, and local policy changes.

As the awareness of the climate crisis grows, so does the mobilization of citizens. Disillusioned by the low level of ambition following the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 and frustrated with international environmental lethargy, people around the world are rising up to demand far greater action for our planet and its people. Digital and social media are bringing these conversations to a global audience and uniting people as never before join together to take on the greatest challenge that humankind has faced.