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Earth Day is an annual event celebrated each year on April 22nd. The worldwide celebration includes rallies, conferences, outdoor activities and service projects with a two-fold purpose: to celebrate the planet’s environment and to raise awareness about pollution and it’s impacts on both the earth and our health.
What started as a grassroots movement, has now become a worldwide event celebrated by millions of people around the globe. Now recognized as the planet’s largest civic event, the first Earth Day created the public support that led to the passage of landmark environmental laws in the United States, including the Clean Air, Clear Water, and Endangered Species Acts.
How did Earth Day come about?
In the 60’s Americans were driving massive V8 sedans that slurped leaded gas, air pollution was accepted, industry has little fear of bad press as it belched out smoke and smudge. The state of the environment wasn’t top of mind or talked about around the dinner table or on the nightly news. Environmental groups were small and disconnected from one another. The counterculture movement was growing across the United States. War was raging in Vietnam and students nationwide opposed it, overwhelmingly, vocally and physically.
The 1962 publishing of Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring became a watershed moment in the environmental movement. Selling more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries, Silent Spring helped raise public awareness of the environment and the links between pollution and health. Interested in seeing what prompted the environmental movement? Silent Spring is still available on Amazon and at other booksellers.
In January of 1969, the worst oil spill of the time happened off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. An estimated 21,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean over the week and a half it took to cap the well. However, the blowout opened undersea faults and oil and gas continued to seep into the ocean for the remainder of 1969. NOAA, the National Oceanic, and Atmospheric Association estimate a total of 4.2 million gallons of crude oil polluted the ocean, 30 miles of sandy beaches were coated with sludge and hundreds of miles of ocean were a black, oily sheen.
On June 22nd, 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire when sparks from a passing train ignited the oil-soaked debris floating on the river. This was not, however, the first time the river had burned as it had burned at least a dozen times before. The 1969 river fire was not a catalyst to the environmental movement, but the last gasp of an industrial river whose role was changing. In 1968 the residents of the city of Cleveland passed a $100 million bond initiative to clean up the river.
Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson witnessed the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and acted. Inspired by the momentum of the student anti-war movement, Nelson realized he could energize the emerging environmental consciousness movement and force environmental protections to the national agenda.
Nelson, a Democrat, reached across the aisle and persuaded Pete McCloskey, a Republican to serve as his co-chair for a “national teach-in on the environment”. They recruited Denis Hayes, from Harvard, to serve as National Coordinator. Hayes built a staff of 85 to promote events across the country. April 22nd was selected as the date as if fell between Spring Break and Final Exams.
April 22nd, 1970 saw more than 20 million Americans demonstrate for clean air, water, and environmental protections. The first Earth Day was effective and instrumental in persuading Congress to create the United States Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970. The EPA still issues an address annually on Earth Day.
In 1990, the 20th Anniversary of Earth Day, Denis Hayes was asked to organize another campaign. Earth Day was going global! More than 200 million people in 141 countries pushed environmental issues onto the world stage. Recycling efforts were boosted worldwide, and Environmental issues reached the United Nations.
In 1992 the United Nations Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janerio. In 1995 President Bill Clinton awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest honor given to civilians in the United States – to Senator Gaylord Nelson for his role as Earth Day founder.
Earth Day 2000 was another Hayes lead campaign. This time the focus was on global warming and clean energy. 5,000 environmental groups in 184 countries reached out to hundreds of millions of people. The 30th anniversary of Earth Day combined the original big-picture focus of the first Earth Day with the grass-roots activism of 1990 on a global scale. From a drum chain that traveled from village to village in Africa, to hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the message was loud and clear – Citizens of the world wanted quick and decisive action on the environment.
Forty Years after the first Earth Day, Earth Day 2010 was presented with some unique challenges. Climate change deniers, oil lobbyists, disinterested politicians, and public and a divided environmental community changed the narrative. Despite these challenges, Earth Day and Earth Day Network prevailed. Earth Day 2010 saw 250,000 people gathered on the National Mall for a Climate Rally, A Billion Acts of Green® started a global tree planting initiative that has grown into The Canopy Project, and 22,000 partners in 192 countries were engaged to participate in Earth Day.
In 2016 the United Nations chose April 22nd, to sign the Paris Climate Agreement.
What are you doing for Earth Day 2019?
April 22nd, 2020 will mark the 50th Anniversary of the Earth Day movement. Earth Day Network, the global coordinator of Earth Day, is already working to ensure Earth Day 2020 is the greatest and most diverse mobilization in history.
BY MARY ELLEN KOSANKE