Today is April 22nd, which means that people all over the world will plant trees, learn about recycling, and get outside to enjoy nature. It’s Earth Day, the annual holiday created to celebrate the planet and to raise awareness about environmental issues. And even more special–this year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day!
In honor of this occasion, we here at Sporcle decided to take a look back at the history of this worldwide event. Learn how a grassroots campaign became the global holiday that it is today.
Planting the Seed
Prior to the 1960s, the general public was not all that concerned with or even aware of the effects of pollution on the environment. Protecting the planet was not an issue in mainstream American politics, and there were few restrictions on the emission of harmful pollutants. If anything, large waste producing factories and gas-guzzling cars were seen as signs of prosperity.
Things began to change in the early 1960s. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s bestseller ‘Silent Spring’ helped to raise public consciousness about the links between pollution and health. The book specifically looked at the effects of pesticides on America’s countrysides. In 1969, a fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River further highlighted issues related to harmful waste disposal.
The idea for Earth Day came to Gaylord Nelson, a US Senator from Wisconsin, in 1969. He had witnessed a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California that same year. He wanted to do something that would help make protecting the environment part of the national discussion.
Nelson felt inspired by the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations he was seeing take place across American college campuses. He thought this concept could be applied to a new environmental movement. Eventually, he pitched the idea for a nation-wide ‘teach-in’ on the environment to the national public.
Nelson realized the necessity for a bipartisan effort if his idea for a large-scale demonstration was really going to take off. He persuaded conservative Congressman Pete McCloskey to serve as the co-chair for his Earth Day concept. Nelson then recruited a young activist named Denis Hayes to serve as his national coordinator. Hayes was able to put together a national staff of 85 people to assist in promoting events across the country.
Nelson ultimately chose April 22 as the day for this event. He felt this date would help maximize student participation, falling somewhere between spring break and finals week for most.
On April 22, 1970, major cities all over the US held rallies. People took to the streets to raise awareness about environmental issues. Colleges organized protests in support of more Earth-friendly policies. In Washington, D.C., Congress went into recess so its members could speak at Earth Day events.
Earth Day was a huge success, in part to the bipartisan backing it received. It seems almost unheard of today, but people from all walks of life joined in support of a cleaner Earth. People began to realize that they shared many common values when it came to the environment.
It wasn’t just public support that made Earth Day a success. Many important pieces of legislation were passed during the 1970s. Most notably were the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Another important outcome was the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in December of that same year.
Earth Day Now
Earth Day has only continued to grow since those initial demonstrations in 1970. In 1990, the holiday spread to the rest of the world, with over 140 nations participating. In 2000, Earth day expanded to 184 countries, with some 5,000 environmental groups taking part in various activities.
According to the Earth Day Network, the nonprofit organization that coordinates activities around the celebration, Earth Day is the largest secular observance in the world. Over one billion people observe it each year.
You might even have plans to get outside today. Before you do though, why not earn this 100% recyclable badge – Earth Day