Written by Haley Cottey
On April 22nd, 1970, millions of Americans rallied on the first Earth Day from coast to coast to demonstrate their shared value for a healthy and sustainable environment. Organized protests took place all over the country to protest businesses, factories and power plants that were polluting and contributing to loss of wildlife and wilderness. Those with few other commonalities stood side by side to show that our earth is for us all no matter our political, spiritual, or economic alignment.
In 1969, Santa Barbara, California suffered from a massive oil spill which led US Senator Gaylord Nelson to take a growing public consciousness and do something about it. Up until this point, environmental health was not a common topic. However, over the past years, some were beginning to voice their concern for the health of our earth. For example, in 1962, Rachel Carson published her New York Times bestselling book Silent Spring raising awareness for how pollution was affecting the environment and living creatures.
After the oil spill, Senator Nelson announced to national media his “national teach-in on the environment.” He recruited Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey who also took a conservation stance to be his co-chair. He also made Denis Hayes from Harvard the national coordinator.
Together, along with millions of Americans, they launched the first Earth Day. Their efforts lead to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.
“It was a gamble,” Gaylord recalled, “but it worked.”
20 years later, Hayes and Nelson took Earth Day global. 200 million people in 141 countries brought environmental issues to the attention of world leaders boosting recycling and paving the way for the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role as Earth Day founder.
Since its founding, Earth Day has moved world leaders to act on global warming and clean energy. It has brought together over 75,000 partners to form initiatives such as The Canopy Project and the Paris Agreement.
April 22nd, 2020, will be the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. To celebrate the anniversary, the Earth Day Foundation has an ambitious set of goals for the future of environmentalism. Go to earthday.org to read more.