A Brief History of Earth Day: Everything to Know

Image of Americans rallying for Earth Day in the 1970s

Earth Day, for many of us, has been around the entire­ty of our lives. From receiv­ing saplings in grade school to learn­ing about impor­tant envi­ron­men­tal caus­es as we got old­er, our day of cel­e­bra­tion for Moth­er Nature has been ever-present. What you may not know is that the his­to­ry of Earth Day isn’t as long and sto­ried as you might imag­ine. Found­ed only in 1970, it took more than a decade to go glob­al, and even longer to become the force of nature (pun intend­ed) that it is today. Though short in time, the his­to­ry of Earth Day is com­pelling, a bit sur­pris­ing and a great reminder to keep the work up for future Earth Weeks. That’s right, we said Earth Week (the pop­u­lar, yet unof­fi­cial exten­sion of Earth Day into a full week). 

Americans joining college rallies on Earth Day 1970

How it started: Earth Day in the 1970’s

Earth Day was found­ed in 1970 by Sen­a­tor Gay­lord Nel­son as a day of envi­ron­men­tal education—not too long ago! In the 1960’s, Amer­i­cans start­ed becom­ing more aware of the envi­ron­men­tal effects that our actions had on the plan­et. Pri­or to that, there was lit­tle knowl­edge of the dam­age we were doing, and no laws or agen­cies in place to pro­tect the envi­ron­ment. In fact, the smell of pol­lu­tion was often tout­ed as the “smell of pros­per­i­ty.” Fac­to­ries could emit tox­ic waste and smoke with no reper­cus­sions. A far cry from today’s stan­dards. (And here’s hop­ing that today’s stan­dards are a far cry from tomorrow’s). 

Nel­son was inspired by the anti-Viet­nam War protests and teach-ins, and envi­sioned sim­i­lar action being tak­en around pro­tect­ing the envi­ron­ment. He imag­ined a grass­roots move­ment start­ed at the col­lege lev­el, hop­ing the noise would become loud enough to bring the issue to a nation­al lev­el. And *spoil­er alert* it worked. 

The first Earth Day was planned by an activist at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. The date cho­sen, April 22nd, was part of a strate­gic effort to max­i­mize the num­ber of stu­dents on col­lege cam­pus­es. Over 20 mil­lion Amer­i­cans par­tic­i­pat­ed in the first Earth Day, about 10% of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion at the time. Ral­lies popped up in major cities includ­ing Philadel­phia, Los Ange­les, New York and Wash­ing­ton DC, and polit­i­cal par­ties came togeth­er in mutu­al agreement. 

New York Times front page marking a historical Earth Day in 1970

Fol­low­ing the suc­cess of Earth Day, Amer­i­cans start­ed chang­ing their beliefs on envi­ron­men­tal activism, and pret­ty imme­di­ate changes were made to leg­is­la­tion. (To under­stand the seis­mic nature of these imme­di­ate changes, think about how dif­fi­cult it is to pass any leg­is­la­tion in today’s world.) Famil­iar leg­is­la­tion that passed that same year includ­ed the Clean Air Act, Water Qual­i­ty Improve­ment Act, Endan­gered Species Act, Tox­ic Sub­stances Con­trol Act, and the Sur­face Min­ing Con­trol and Recla­ma­tion Act. By Decem­ber 1970, the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) was estab­lished “to pro­tect human health and guard the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment.” And by 1971, over 25% of Amer­i­cans believed that pro­tect­ing the envi­ron­ment was a goal that should be a top priority.

Protestors in a public park on Earth Day

How it’s going: Earth Day today

Earth Day has been rec­og­nized every year since 1970, and has only con­tin­ued to grow in strength and num­bers. By 1990, the move­ment went glob­al in over 141 coun­tries. Today, it rep­re­sents the largest civic event in the world, observed by over a bil­lion peo­ple annu­al­ly and cel­e­brat­ed by over 174 countries. 

Today, Earth Day edu­ca­tion and coor­di­na­tion is helmed by the Earth Day Net­work, a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion whose mis­sion is to “diver­si­fy, edu­cate and acti­vate the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment world­wide.” They are the largest recruiter to the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment in the world. 

Through­out grade school, Earth Day was often met with fan­fare and activ­i­ties. In adult­hood, it’s like­ly that you’ve gone a few Earth Days with­out hear­ing about or get­ting involved in the cause. But a move­ment isn’t a move­ment with­out peo­ple, and Earth Day is one move­ment (among many) worth fight­ing for. As we head into Earth Week we encour­age every­one to take a moment out of their day or week to do some­thing to bet­ter our plan­et! It can be as lit­tle as edu­cat­ing your­self on envi­ron­men­tal caus­es, to mak­ing small lifestyle changes, to vol­un­teer­ing for a neigh­bor­hood cleanup. Here are some ideas to get your started.

Hap­py Earth Week!

School children forming a circle around a chalk painted Earth for Earth Day
Pho­to cred­it: northjersey.com


Live Sci­ence, His­to­ry, Earth Day Network

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