April 22, Earth Day is considered by many to be the birthday of the modern environmental movement.
The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 with speeches and celebrations that led to an increase in public consciousness about the state of the planet.
One of the milestones that led to the first Earth Day was the publication of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, in 1962. The information Carson shared energized people in the United States to become more involved in protecting the human and non-human inhabitants of Earth. Policy changes were made, partly in response to the alarm Carson raised.
The website EarthDay.org describes the decades leading up to the first Earth Day.
“Americans were consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through massive and inefficient automobiles. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of the consequences from either the law or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Until this point, mainstream America remained largely oblivious to environmental concerns and how a polluted environment threatens human health.”
THE IDEA FOR THE FIRST EARTH DAY
A group of U.S. legislators coordinated the first Earth Day in response to an increase in environmental deterioration. A pivotal event was a large oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969.
Another synergistic factor was the anti-war movement among college students during the late ’60s. Sen. Gaylord Nelson is credited with instigating the recognition of Earth Day, but he was assisted by Pete McClosky and a couple dozen other legislators. Sen. Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1990 for his work coordinating the first Earth Day.
The group organized teach-ins on college campuses, which they publicized on national media. The date for Earth Day was reportedly chosen because it fell on a weekday between spring break and final exams, to better reach college students and capitalize on the youthful fervor of anti-war activists.
Earth Day immediately sparked national media attention, and caught on across the country, inspiring 20 million Americans – at the time, 10% of the total population of the United States – to take to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate against the impacts of 150 years of industrial development which had left a growing legacy of serious human health impacts.
Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment and there were massive coast-to-coast rallies in cities, towns and communities.
Earth Day 1970 was an unusual collaboration of Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban dwellers and farmers, business and labor leaders.
By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of other ground-breaking environmental laws, including the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Clean Air Act.
Two years later, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. A year after that, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act and soon after the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.
These laws have protected millions of men, women and children from disease and death and have protected hundreds of species from extinction. As time passed, Earth Day went global, and on the 20 year anniversary there was a major publicity campaign that mobilized an estimated 200 million people in 141 countries, lifting environmental issues onto the world stage.
Earth Day 2021 had the theme “Climate Action” and was marketed by global conferences, concerts and other gatherings, many of them virtual, to educate and encourage earth-dwellers to consider the impact of climate change and inspire collective action.