Earth Day: How It Started and Why We Celebrate

dog picking up bottle on earth day

Earth Day is a festival celebrated every year on April 22 to express respect for environmental conservation. It began on April 22, 1970, and has since expanded to encompass a diverse variety of activities organized annually by EARTHDAY.ORG (formerly Earth Day Network), involving over 1 billion people in over 193 countries.
Earth Day is different from many other holidays and special occasions celebrated throughout the year.

Most of these days can be traced back to one specific event in the origin culture that led to the day being marked in the history books.

However, Earth Day can be credited to a series of events that culminated in the creation of this celebration of the beauty and splendor of our earth.

The day also serves as a reminder that we all must do our part to cohabitate and keep our home planet free of pollution and other life-threatening, man-made substances.

Who Created Earth Day?

In 1962 a man by the name of Gaylord Nelson was elected to the US Senate in the state of Wisconsin. He was arguably one of the first major politicians to bring environmental and humanitarian issues to the forefront of our nation.

“The Father Of Earth Day”

Senator Gaylord Nelson is considered by many to be the Father of Earth Day. Gaylord Nelson was A Senator and Governor from Wisconsin and created Earth Day in 1970 to bring global awareness to environmental issues and to mobilize demonstrations demanding for tougher environmental regulations.

Senator Nelson was fascinated by the efficacy of anti-war “teach-ins” in mobilizing college students to oppose the Vietnam War. The Senator hoped to use the anti-war movement’s vigor to increase national consciousness of environmental issues. Nelson imagined a “global teach-in on the climate” that would bring these issues to the center of the national discourse and into the political sphere.

Nelson called on Americans to come together next spring for a day devoted to environmental education in September 1969. Nelson had to create a new company called Environmental Teach-In, Inc. to help participants plan for the national event when his proposal was greeted with such excitement.

And it worked!

The first Earth Day was celebrated in April 1970. On December 2nd, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was created.

Who Help Inspire Earth Day?

Senator Nelson had some great people come before him to champion the cause of our Earth. Earth Day was formally founded by Nelson, but it’s inspiration has a long history. Here are some other notable figures that brought environmental issues to the forefront of global awareness.

Rachel Carson

Silent Spring, a scathing condemnation against the spraying of DDT and other pesticides, was published in 1962 by Rachel Carson.

Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907. She grew up in Pennsylvania on a 65 acre farm which she spent much of her youth exploring and fostering a love of nature. She later went on to become a renowned biologist and nature novelist.

She is credited with bringing the environmental movement its scientific roots by highlighting the use of science in the mass destruction of numerous bird and animal species through testing and development.

Paul Erlich

Population development was criticized for bulldozing fields and parks to make way for vast cities, as outlined in Paul Erlich’s landmark 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. In 1969, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, which flooded through Cleveland and other industrial areas, caught fire from all the toxic wastes that were constantly poured in it, in what may be the most prominent human-made tragedy of the decade.

 

Traditional April Version of Earth Day

In major protests throughout the United States on April 22, 1970, Americans marched and protested in the streets for a safe, prosperous climate. On that day, an estimated 20 million people attended from 10,000 primary and high schools, 2,000 universities, and over 1,000 communities. It’s been suggested that the date of April 22 was selected because it came between spring breaks and final exams at colleges.

The first Earth Day not only drew a large crowd but also resulted in an unusual political alignment. People from all political persuasions joined together with the climate, as did people from all walks of life – union workers, farmers, doctors, and politicians.

Equinox Earth Day

Did you know that originally Earth Day was on a different day than the one it’s presently celebrated on? The first official Earth Day to be commemorated by a government official took place on March 21, 1970, which is the day of the Spring Equinox.

This isn’t the only instance of there being a bit of confusion on when Earth Day officially lands. There have been a fair amount of rumors over the decided month and day the celebration of peace would be commemorated on.
One of the wildest rumors in circulation was that the date April 22 was chosen over mid-March and the Spring Equinox because the former was the 100th birthday of Vladimir Lenin.

There have been other assorted dates to commemorate Earth Day throughout the years. The dates and times have varied depending on the country and specific culture. Regardless, all of the celebrations have taken place sometime between mid-March and mid-April.
Traditionally, the history books officially recognize the following timeline as the anniversary of the first Earth Day.

man planting tree

Reorganization Plan No. 3: The Founding of The EPA

Earth Day and the work of Senator Nelson is often credited with the creation of The Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has an unusual start compared to other federal agencies. On July 9th, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed Reorganization Plan No. 3. An Executive Order that consolidated various environmental protection duties, spread out across many federal agencies, into one. The EPA.

The climate was essentially a concern held by all political parties during the time after the first Earth Day. The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Environmental Policy Act (which required environmental impact statements) were created, and laws protecting endangered species and ensuring clean air and water were implemented.

The pervasive, deadly contamination that clogged the skies of the United States was one of the key concerns that inspired Nelson and his colleagues to plan the first Earth Day. Weather conditions induced a stew of smog to bubble up in the industrial town of Donora, Pa., sickening thousands and killing 20 people in the fall of 1948, one of the worst air pollution incidents in the country’s history.

Planting a tree

The Clean Air Act

In the years that followed, Congress passed numerous legislation to regulate air pollution, but the seminal Clean Air Act of 1970 was the statute that truly ushered in the strict and extensive control of emissions from coal plants, manufacturers, and vehicles.

The legislation and recent amendments have resulted in dramatic decreases in three main pollutants: nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and lead, around the world.

When inhaled, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide can be toxic to human health, and both react with other chemicals in the atmosphere to form the particles that cause smog. Lead is extremely dangerous and can damage the nervous and cardiovascular systems.

Leaded fuel was a significant cause of airborne lead emissions in the mid-20th century; since it was phased out in the mid-1970s, lead levels have plunged.

Many activists and scientists who research air quality are worried that the EPA’s recent decisions would delay — or even undo — the significant gains made over the last 50 years.

50 Years and Beyond

We did not commemorate the half-century milestone in the manner we had hoped. The year 2020 was expected to be a landmark moment for change in the environment, sustainability, and the ocean, with massive international summits acting as a catalyst.

We were looking forward to Earth Day as a chance for people from all around the world to gather, honor nature, and demand change.

Instead, the majority of us were cooped up in our homes as the earth grapples with a global pandemic

Still, for the time being, political leadership is critical. Activists have outlined green recovery initiatives to link our health care programs and the economy with sustainability priorities as the federal government pushes on a series of stimulus packages to drive policies in an ecologically and economically positive direction.

Those proposals merge the government’s highest priorities—saving lives and stopping the country from collapsing.

There have been numerous change-makers in the battle for climate action and the environment over the years. Some are well-known, outspoken politicians, and others are smaller grass-roots groups and people, both of whom are critical. Although the work does not start and finish in April, it serves as a warning that we must all take steps.

Let us use the last 50 years of activism to refuel and energize our momentum, inspire us to work together across the earth, and remind us that we can and must do more.

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