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A Brief History of Earth Day

April 21, 2011

Happy Earth Day!

This week we celebrate the 41st anniversary of the first Earth Day, a day for environmental awareness and green living.  This week also marks the first anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Ukraine; so we have a long way to go before we have a perfect record of living in harmony with our planet.

Earth Day was the brain child of Gaylord Nelson, then a US Senator from Wisconsin.*  Throughout his tenure as Wisconsin’s governor in the 1950’s and then as a senator in the 60’s, Nelson pushed for environmental causes such as natural resource management, wildlife conservation and the creation of green jobs.

But by 1969 he was frustrated with the lack of passion for such issues in Washington DC and his inability to pass legislation dealing with environmental issues.  So, inspired by the Vietnam War protests, he imagined a national “teach-in” on environmental issues.  He recruited then-Congressman Pete McCloskey and Denis Hayes to help popularize the movement, but mainly depended on local college campuses and community centers to organize and host activities.  The grass-roots “earth day” movement was a huge success, with 20 million people in 1,000 communities across the US participating in events on April 22, 1970.

The first Earth Day galvanized environmental groups and proved that there was popular support for environmental legislation.  This lead to the founding of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970 and the passage of several landmark federal environmental protection bills, including the Clean Air Acts, the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Education Act, the Federal Pesticides Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

However, with the beginning of the Regan Era in 1980, priorities in Washington shifted and Senator Nelson lost his re-election bid.  He left the Senate in 1981, but continued his work as an environmentalist, working for organizations such as the Wilderness Society.  Earth Day activitsm was largely dormant until a revival in 1990.  For the 20th anniversary Earth Day, Denis Hayes agreed to coordinate a global day of environmental awareness.  April 22, 1990 saw 200 million participants in 141 countries around the world.  In 1995, Gaylord Nelson was awarded the United States’ highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Today Earth Day is a global event, but the focus is still on locally organized events and individual commitment / participation.  The centerpiece of this year’s happenings is the Earth Day Network’s Billion Acts of Green program.  Organizations large and small from around the world can register and promote their events, from tree planting to recycling drives to massive water conservation projects.  The goal is to increase participation in green activities to one billion individual events in advance of the 2012 Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  For more on Earth Day events in your area, visit the US EPA’s website or Google “Earth Day 2011 + your city.”  For tips on small things you can do to help the environment (and your budget) see this post from last year’s Earth Day.


Earth Day Network

Gaylord Nelson and the history of Earth Day 

The Wilderness Society via Envirolink

Direct from the Wilderness Society 


* Not to be confused with Lord Horatio Nelson.  Totally. Different. Dude.  I know, I’m a sad person that in my mind I get these two great men confused.  I’m odd, what can I say?

  1. April permalink

    Yay! Happy Earth Day!

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