Since 1970, billions of people around the world have celebrated Earth Day—that day of the year that reminds us to practice conservation and work for environmental sustainability. And every year, the impact of Earth Day compounds: More trees are planted, more petitions are signed and more communities learn how to implement eco-friendly actions and policies for future generations. But the international holiday, which is celebrated on April 22 in the U.S. and most of the world, has modest beginnings, and, in large part, it owes its creation to a single visionary.
How Earth Day got its start
Long before Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio—and countless other stars and politicians—championed actions to address climate change, there was Senator Gaylord Nelson. Elected in 1962, the Wisconsin senator had a mission: to spread awareness about harmful ecological practices and help further conservation efforts. Up until that time, concerns about environmental issues barely made a blip on the average American’s radar. In fact, there weren’t even laws or government agencies to prevent or regulate pollution.
But the early 1960s was a unique time in American history. It marked the start of the counter-culture movement, and what seemed like radical ideas at the time, including those about civil rights, anti-war sentiments and gender equality, were starting to take hold. Likewise, attitudes around the importance of environmental preservation started to shift. The same year Nelson was elected, Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring,” a revolutionary book that exposed the harmful effects of pesticides, and it became a worldwide bestseller.
Changes in public perception helped Nelson push Earth-friendly laws through Congress, including the ban of the toxic pesticide DDT. Still, many of Nelson’s pleas to change environmental policy fell on deaf ears. After all, fossil fuels ruled the market, and it was hard convincing congressmen to enact policies they believed would harm the economy.
But in 1969, after witnessing the devastating effects of the first Santa Barbara oil spill, Nelson decided to take a new approach.1 Borrowing lessons from the anti-war movement, he proposed the idea of Earth Day, an “environmental teach-in” or protest that would spread awareness about environmental conservation. With the help of Harvard grad student and activist Denis Hayes, Nelson successfully launched the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Nearly 20 million Americans took to the streets and college campuses across the nation, rallying for greener regulations and restrictions to reduce pollution.2
The first Earth Day started a revolution of new American ideals. Suddenly, politicians could no longer ignore public concern about pollution, toxic chemicals in building supplies or water contamination. As a result, Congress rapidly passed a series of environmental laws in the 1970s, which included the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. And in December 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to monitor the impact of commonly used pollutants and keep big industries in check.3
Push for a global holiday
Like many hot-button topics, enthusiasm for environmental issues waned over the years. So, in 1990, Hayes decided to do something to rekindle interest in conservation: He organized a global Earth Day. With the help of environmental groups across the country and around the world, Hayes successfully launched the first internationally-recognized Earth Day—and nearly 200 million people in over 140 nations participated. Ten years later, Hayes led another worldwide campaign for Earth Day—this time focusing awareness on global warming and the importance of clean energy. Utilizing the power of the internet, the movement worked: Hundreds of millions of people in 184 countries, including nearly 5,000 environmental groups, rallied and volunteered to support clean energy initiatives. In D.C. alone, hundreds of thousands gathered at the Washington Monument to send congress, and the rest of the world, the message that Americans were serious about climate change and renewable energy.4
Earth Day today: what you can do
Fast forward nearly twenty years later, and still more than 1 billion people participate in Earth Day activities each year.5 However, today, the efforts to counteract the causes of global warming continue with a new sense of urgency. As the damaging effects of a changing climate continue to worsen, there’s more pressure to make a real and lasting impact, not just on Earth Day but every day.
Fortunately, there are more ways than ever to make a difference. Several organizations not only offer volunteer opportunities on Earth Day but also throughout the year, addressing helpless attitudes and effecting enduring results. For those looking to kick-start their own environmental activism this Earth Day (or any day), here are some top options to consider:
Short on time? Never underestimate the power of a giving a little green to go green. Donate to these eco-organizations for a healthier planet:
No matter how long someone has been celebrating Earth Day, this April 22 is a chance to gather with friends, spread the knowledge and do something to clean up and protect the environment. People can keep the momentum going year-round by adopting greener habits, like using sustainable materials for home remodeling, investing in smart devices to help reduce energy consumption and making small tweaks for a healthier home and planet.
1. Meet Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day
2. Earth Day – Annual Celebration
4. The Origins of EPA
5. The History of Earth Day