Earth Day History

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The setting was 1960’s Vietnam War-torn America. The atmosphere was unsettled, with social and political concerns moving to the forefront of American awareness. A sleeping giant, in the form of environmentally concerned citizens, politicians and students was about to be awakened, with the leadership of one Senator from Wisconsin.

The Problem

Once upon a time in America, there was no such legislation as the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act. Environmental regulations were few and far between, and Americans were starting to take notice.

The release of Rachel Carson’s best-seller “Silent Spring” caused the American public to seek answers on pesticide use. The media carried news that Lake Erie, one of America’s largest bodies of fresh water, was polluted beyond safe levels. The media also carried the news that Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted with oil and toxic chemicals, that it burst into flames by spontaneous combustion. These were the images the American public was starting to absorb – and for which they demanded solutions.

The Idea

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Senator Gaylord Nelson (1916-2005) is responsible for the creation of Earth Day, as well as the passing of much environmental legislation still in use today. Photo: wisconsinhistory.org

The idea to create Earth Day came to Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) in the summer of 1969. He had tried for seven years to bring environmental issues to the forefront of American awareness, even organizing a Presidential conservation tour across 11 states for John F. Kennedy. Though the 1963 Presidential tour was a major accomplishment, it didn’t succeed in bringing environmental issues to the national public agenda.

At the time, Vietnam war protests were occurring on college campuses across the country. Students were exercising their voices in record numbers. The idea to organize a nationwide grassroots protest over what what happening to the environment came to the Senator after seeing these energized citizens.

In September of 1969, in Seattle, the Senator announced that a nationwide grassroots demonstration would occur on behalf of the environment in the spring of 1970. He invited any and all concerned citizens to participate. And participate they did. Two thousand colleges and universities; 10,000 high schools and grade schools and several thousand communities participated in the event: 20 million people strong.

April 22, 1970

This photo of a Pace College student in a gas mask "smelling" a magnolia blossom in New York's City Hall Park has become a famous image of Earth Day 1970. Photo: ucsb.edu

This photo of a Pace College student in a gas mask “smelling” a magnolia blossom in New York has become a famous image of Earth Day 1970. Photo: ucsb.edu

Five months before Earth Day was set to occur, the New York Times carried an article by Gladwin Hill reporting on environmental events. Hill stated, “Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam.”

As momentum built leading up to April 22, 1970, office space to coordinate the event was acquired and students were staffed to manage activities. In a time preceding the Internet, the movement was coordinated by grassroots communication efforts.

Said Gaylord Nelson, “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor the 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.”

A Force Set in Motion

The response to April 22, 1970, was so great, it became clear the executive branch could not respond to the public’s demand for environmental action without creating an organization responsible for doing so. In 1970, President Richard Nixon created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with a mission to protect the environment and public health. In the years following the first Earth Day, a number of new legislation was signed into law, including:

  • 1970: Congress amends the Clean Air Act to set national air quality, auto emission and anti-pollution standards.
  • 1972: Congress passes the Clean Water Act, limiting sewage and pollutants from entering the nation’s rivers, lakes and streams.
  • 1974: Congress passes the Safe Drinking Water Act, allowing the EPA to regulate the quality of public drinking water.
  • 1976: Congress passes the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, regulating hazardous waste from production to disposal.
  • 1976: President Gerald Ford signs the Toxic Substances Control Act to reduce environmental and human health risks.

Earth Day is now observed by more than a billion people in 174 countries. It is coordinated by the nonprofit Earth Day Network (EDN) and is “the largest secular civic event in the world,” according to EDN.

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