Earth Day History

/ 20/04/2012 /

Earth DayWhat do we think about on Earth Day? How many of us contemplate our concerns over environmental destruction, the change in climate, or even the dangers to our food supply? Contemplation is just the stepping stone toward action. What are people doing? And how did Earth Day first come about?

1969: Cuyahoga River on Fire

Forty-two years ago, the term “environment” did not come up in daily conversation; that is, until a picture in Time Magazine changed all of that. 

In 1969, Americans were engrossed in the troublesome Vietnam War. On the home front, lakes and rivers were getting polluted, and cities such as Los Angeles were covered in smog. Litter was everywhere. This destruction of the environment was seen as a result of progress until Americans saw this picture in Time Magazine.

This particular photo referenced a June1969 fire that happened because of an oil slick on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. Cleveland was in the midst of cleaning up the city, and this was not the first time the river had become engulfed in flames. The actual picture in Time wasn’t accurate – it was actually a photo from the previous fire in 1952. Regardless, the image sparked a discourse in public and among politicians.

Environmental “Teach-In” Sparks a Mass Movement

In Wisconsin, Senator Gaylord Nelson, having witnessed the effects of the 1969 oil spill on the west coast in Santa Barbara, California, made the decision that a “national teach-in” about the environment was in order. Groups representing causes, including air pollution, oil spill prevention, toxic dumps, wilderness destruction, and endangered species, began to realize they were all a part of something much bigger.

Senator Nelson proposed this national day of activities to send a message to Washington that there was strong public support of a political agenda that addressed the environment. There was immense public excitement about this national day. Senator Nelson insisted that activists, individuals, and groups start Earth Day activities on a local community level. Because of this encouragement of individual and local initiatives, the people were empowered – and a mass movement was born.

Earth Day – and Environmental Legislation – is Born

The very first Earth Day was on April 20, 1970. It drew the passions of 20 million people throughout America. That meant that one in ten Americans participated in that first Earth Day.

The largest crowd was in New York City. Mayor John Lindsey allowed Fifth Avenue to be closed and for Central Park to host an astonishing one million participants. CBS News hosted a one-hour Earth Day news special with Walter Cronkite.

In the years to come, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency became a reality under President Richard Nixon.

Earth Day Today

After the first Earth Day in 1970, the event was held every ten years. Senator Nelson felt it would make a greater impact if the event were held every year, so in 1990, he formed Earth Day USA with Bruce Anderson, New Hampshire’s lead Earth Day organizer. Since then, Earth Day has become a nationally recognized observance day, and this is the change that has helped it gain the most momentum.

In 1995, the Earth Day Network created Earthday.org to help educate and mobilize people. The reach of the Internet helped spur the popularity and symbolism of Earth Day.

Earth Day has since made its way to 175 countries worldwide. At a time when recognizing the critical condition of the Earth is more important than ever, we hope that, every year, even more people celebrate, volunteer, and participate in Earth Day and every day.

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