The History of Earth Day

By: Charlotte Miller

Happy Earth Day! 

No, I am not writing about Earth Day just because it is the same day as my birthday (April 22)! Okay, maybe I am a little. However, identifying as an environmentalist and having the same birthday as Earth Day, I have always had a love for Mother Earth and a constant and persisting interest in the history of Earth Day. 

The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970 and marked the start of the environmental movement throughout the world ¹. Up until 1970, Americans were consuming large amounts of food, using leaded gas, and purchasing and driving cars. This industrial boom subsequently led to increases in air pollution and noise pollution. At the time, Americans thought of this industrial boom as a sign of technological prosperity and success, without taking into account the environmental impact of it all. 

Public concern for the environment was looming, however, mainly due to Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller, Silent Spring published in 1962. The book shed light on the impact humans have on the environment and the growing concern for biodiversity and all living species ¹. This helped put environmental concerns at the forefront of news and media, emphasizing civilians worries about their impact on the environment. 

Then, in January of  1969, an oil spill in California shocked senator Gaylord Nelson, a junior senator from Wisconsin ¹. This environmental disaster motivated him to recruit “Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair” on teach-in organization on college campuses ¹. With the help of college activist Denis Hayes, they decided on April 22 for their campus teach-ins. Ironically, they picked April 22 because it was between spring break and final exams on college campuses ¹ (targeting college students was – is – a smart idea because they – we – are the future and can potentially have the biggest impact on environmental policy and change). As the organization grew throughout the country on college campuses, faith groups, and other organizations, it coined the name “Earth Day” and with that, gained national recognition in the media. Organized protests erupted across the country on April 22, 1970, with 20 million Americans participating. They advocated for more sustainable ways to live and demanded responsibility to be taken for the negative environmental impacts the industrial revolution had caused. 

This day would be declared as Earth Day from there on out and by the end of 1970, the US established the Environmental Protection Agency, along with several other environmental laws ¹. Concern was voiced, action was taken through protests and organizations, and change was made. This was a triumphant win for environmentalists in America. 

By 1990, Earth Day extended beyond America and went world-wide. It mobilized approximately 200 million people to advocate for better protection of the environment, including 141 countries ¹. The main outcome of this was prioritizing recycling efforts throughout the world. Additionally, President Clinton awarded Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom as the founder of Earth Day ¹. Environmental issues were finally getting global attention and people were realizing the extent to which the environment was suffering. But, there was still a long way to go. 

As years passed by, climate change became a popular topic in the media and the extent to which humans played a role in climate change was coming to light. This evidently led to climate change deniers, including people high up in the government. This ultimately led to confusion for civilians who did not do their own research. Some of them did not believe the science; instead, they believed in authority figures who denied science. This is still a common trend among some people and politicians. Why don’t they believe the years of science and research in front of them? While that is hard to say, one explanation could surely be fear. Fear that humans have had an enormous negative impact on the environment. Fear that humans are largely responsible for global warming, air pollution, and rising sea levels. This is all scary stuff, but nonetheless, it is true. Earth Day serves as a day to appreciate nature, biodiversity, and the global environment that we inhabit. It also serves as a day to remind us all to take action against the fossil fuel industry, plastic pollution, and wildlife habitat destruction. April 22, 2020, served as the 50 year anniversary of Earth Day. We can reflect on the progress that has been made and set new goals for the future. We can try to live more sustainably on a daily basis by eliminating single-use plastic (reusable water bottles are key), shopping locally (and bringing a reusable grocery bag), and reducing consumption of energy (don’t leave your light on)! Although it may be difficult to see, small changes can make a big impact on the environment, and it starts with you!

Resources for Earth Day 2021 & Sustainable Living: 

Reference List:


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