Every year on April 22, we collectively demonstrate support for environmental protection. Earth Day is a celebration of nature and a petition to preserve it, a time when people of all backgrounds, affiliations and cultures come together for one commonality: the planet where we live.
While it’s taken on more of an abstract purpose, Earth Day actually marks the anniversary of the modern environmental movement. The history of Earth Day begins in 1970, a pivotal year for the U.S. for a number of reasons. With all the problems plaguing the nation, pollution wasn’t at the forefront.
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To provide context, 1970 saw the death of Jimi Hendrix, the final album from The Beatles and growing opposition against the war in Vietnam. It was a turbulent period for the country, and all these landmark events competing for the attention of everyday Americans drew the spotlight away from the environment.
So what was the catalyst that led to the creation of Earth Day? Who’s responsible for the idea, and how has this celebration shaped our planet? Here’s the history of Earth Day and the effect it has on the environment.
The First Official Earth Day
Eight years before the creation of Earth Day, Rachel Carson released her New York Times bestseller, “Silent Spring.” While mainstream America remained mostly unaware of environmental concerns at the time, the publication of Carson’s book represented a turning point. It sold more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries.
“Silent Spring” raised awareness about the environment and the connection between pollution and public health. Carson set the stage for progress, and U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, would follow through on her mission to make environmental protection a subject of discussion nationwide.
After the massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969, Nelson felt the need to bring more attention to the issue of air and water pollution. In partnership with Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey and national coordinator Denis Hayes, Nelson planned to organize “a national teach-in on the environment.”
On April 22, 1970, around 20 million people gathered for the first official Earth Day. In streets, auditoriums and parks across the country, Americans came together to show solidarity for the protection and preservation of the planet. It was an example of rare political alignment between Republicans and Democrats.
By the end of 1970, Earth Day had given way to the formation of the U.S. EPA, as well as the Clean Water, Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts. For his importance to environmental preservation, Nelson secured his place in history, an early predecessor of today’s climate heroes.
Earth Day in Recent Years
Activists met the new millennium with record numbers, bringing together 5,000 environmental groups in 184 countries for Earth Day 2000. They spread their message far and wide to hundreds of millions of people, organizing everywhere from villages in Gabon, Africa, to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Earth Day 2010 was somewhat troubled, with climate-change deniers, oil lobbyists, disinterested politicians and a divided environmental community. Despite the pressing issue of climate change, the public wasn’t as willing to organize. Even so, Earth Day Network launched the world’s largest environmental service project.
Across the United States, events for Earth Day 2018 made a positive impact, and cities like San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas and Arlington, Virginia, all participated in their own celebrations. It was an active year, with film screenings, festivals, conferences and coordinated activities that brought even greater attention to the escalating problems of pollution and global warming.
As Earth Day 2019 fast approaches, look into organizations in your area that are planning conservation projects. Most of these organizations are eager to find volunteers, and you should set aside time to participate in their efforts. Even a few hours has the potential to create lasting change.
Even if you can’t find a project to participate in, you have other ways to show your support. Use fewer plastic products, limit the amount of water you use, purchase from companies that share your values and educate yourself on environmental preservation. As long as you make an effort, you’ll make a difference.
Moving Toward Earth Day 2019
Next year, America will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It’s an important milestone, a reminder that 50 years ago, the nation came together in the tens of millions to show support for environmental protection. Though much has changed throughout the history of Earth Day, one thing is certain: Even with the progress advocates have made to preserve the health of our planet, we still have a long road ahead of us.
On Earth Day 2019, go out of your way and do what you can to ensure the world remains a clean and beautiful place to live for generations to come.