In the 1960’s, there was growing concern among Americans about air pollution, water pollution, and degradation of the natural landscape, fueled by events such as the Cuyahoga River fire (1952), publication of Silent Spring (1962), and the Santa Barbara oil spill (1969), the largest oil spill in US waters at that time. After witnessing the damage from the oil spill, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, was inspired to create an event that would bring together a myriad of environmental concerns and bring environmental protection “permanently onto the national political agenda.” Nelson wanted this environmental action to channel the kind of passion that had characterized the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war protests.
Nelson originally had planned a national teach-in on college campuses. He persuaded Republican Congressman Pete Mcloskey, to serve as his co-chair. The two recruited a young environmental activist, Dennis Hayes, to serve as national coordinator of the event. They chose April 22, a date after spring break but before final exams, to increase participation among college and university students.
When it became clear that colleges and universities were not particularly interested in an environmental education event, and that the idea of a teach-in was somewhat passé, they shifted their strategy to create a more community based effort. And so, the idea of Earth Day was born.
On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans, roughly 10% of the population at the time, turned out to participate in Earth Day events. Thousands of gatherings occurred in large cities, small towns, and on campuses across the nation. Earth Day gave a voice to the emerging public concern over environmental degradation and launched the modern environmental movement as we know it.
This force of community action had long lasting effects. First, in November of 1970, the Earth Day movement helped to unseat several congressmen it characterized as among the “Dirty Dozen” – the worst environmental offenders in the Congress. Then in December of 1970 Congress passed the Clean Air Act, a landmark piece of legislation that had immeasurable benefits to the environment and human health. Subsequent environmental legislation included:
In addition to this legislation, several new Federal agencies were also created, including the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (1970), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (1971).
For the 20th Anniversary in 1990, Dennis Hayes returned to organize a worldwide Earth Day event, in which 200 million people from 141 countries participated. This event helped increase rates of recycling and lay the groundwork for the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero (1992). In 1995, President Clinton presented Senator Nelson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, for his contribution to the environmental movement.
In more recent Earth Day history, the Paris Climate Agreement was signed by 120 countries on April 22, 2016.
For the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, many had hoped to see millions in the streets again, commensurate with the first Earth Day, demanding action on climate change. However, while the streets are mostly empty in this time of social distancing, we are still exhibiting the power of collective action. One valuable lesson our experience with Coronavirus has demonstrated is our ability to collectively make personal sacrifices and rapidly adjust our behavior to combat an unseen foe for the sake of the greater good. Perhaps rapid worldwide action on climate change for the preservation of humanity it is not so far-fetched after all.