Earth Day: the modern environmental movement turns 50
Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson came up with idea after witnessing 1969 California oil spill
COURTESY OF EARTHDAY.ORG
Every year on April 22, Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970.
As we mark 50 years of Earth Day in 2020, let’s take a look at the last half-century of mobilization for action.
Origins of Earth Day
Earth Day 1970 gave a voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet.
In the decades leading up to the first Earth Day, Americans were consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through massive and inefficient automobiles. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of the consequences from either the law or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Until this point, mainstream America remained largely oblivious to environmental concerns and how a polluted environment threatens human health.
However, the stage was set for change with the publication of Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962. The book represented a watershed moment, selling more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries as it raised public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and the inextricable links between pollution and public health.
Earth Day 1970 would come to provide a voice to this emerging environmental consciousness, channeling the energy of the anti-war protest movement to put environmental concerns on the front page.
The idea for the first Earth Day
Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson came up with the idea for a national day to focus on the environment after Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, witnessed the ravages of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, Senator Nelson realized that if he could infuse the energy of anti-war protests with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda.
Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media. He then persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair and recruited a 25-year-old named Denis Hayes from Harvard as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land.
April 22, falling between Spring Break and Final Exams, was selected as the date.
On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans — at the time, 10% of the total population of the United States — took to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment.
Groups that had been fighting individually against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife united on Earth Day around these shared common values. Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban dwellers and farmers, business and labor leaders. By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air Act. Two years later Congress passed the Clean Water Act. A year after that, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.
“It was a gamble,” Senator Gaylord recalled, “but it worked.”
1990: Earth Day goes global
As 1990 approached, a group of environmental leaders approached Denis Hayes to organize another major campaign for the planet. This time, Earth Day went global, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries and lifting environmental issues onto the world stage. Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It also prompted President Bill Clinton to award Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest honor given to civilians in the United States — for his role as Earth Day founder.
Earth Day for a new millennium
As the millennium approached, Hayes agreed to spearhead another campaign, this time focused on global warming and a push for clean energy. With 5,000 environmental groups in a record 184 countries reaching out to hundreds of millions of people, Earth Day 2000 built both global and local conversations, leveraging the power of the Internet to organize activists around the world, while also featuring a drum chain that traveled from village to village in Gabon, Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people also gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for a First Amendment Rally.
30 years on, Earth Day 2000 sent world leaders a loud and clear message: Citizens around the world wanted quick and decisive action on global warming and clean energy.
Earth Day 2010
As in 1970, Earth Day 2010 came at a time of great challenge for the environmental community to combat the cynicism of climate change deniers, well-funded oil lobbyists, reticent politicians, a disinterested public, and a divided environmental community with the collective power of global environmental activism.
In the face of these challenges, Earth Day prevailed and Earth Day Network reestablished Earth Day as a major moment for global action for the environment. Earth Day Network brought 250,000 people to the National Mall for a Climate Rally and introduced a global tree planting initiative that has since grown into The Canopy Project. Earth Day Network also launched A Billion Acts of Green® — the world’s largest environmental service project — and engaged 75,000 partners in 192 countries in observing Earth Day.
Earth Day today
Today, Earth Day is widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world, marked by more than a billion people every year as a day of action to change human behavior and provoke policy changes.
Now, the fight for a clean environment continues with increasing urgency, as the ravages of climate change become more and more apparent every day.
As the awareness of our climate crisis grows, so does civil society mobilization, which is reaching a fever pitch across the globe today. Disillusioned by the low level of ambition following the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 and frustrated with international environmental lethargy, citizens of the world are rising up to demand far greater action for our planet and its people.
The social and cultural environments we saw in 1970 are rising up again today — a fresh and frustrated generation of young people are refusing to settle for platitudes, instead taking to the streets by the millions to demand a new way forward. Digital and social media are bringing these conversations, protests, strikes and mobilizations to a global audience, uniting a concerned citizenry as never before and catalyzing generations to join together to take on the greatest challenge that humankind has faced.
By tapping into some of the learnings, outcomes, and legacy of the first Earth Day while also channeling the energy, excitement, and coordination of the youth climate strikes, we can build a movement going into the 50th anniversary that goes to the very heart of what EDN and Earth Day are all about — empowering individuals with the information, the tools, the messaging and the communities needed to make an impact and drive change.
2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. In honor of this milestone, Earth Day Network is launching an ambitious set of goals to shape the future of 21st century environmentalism. Learn more at www.earthday.org/earth-day-50th-anniversary. We invite you to be a part of Earth Day and help write many more chapters—struggles and victories—into the Earth Day book.