Earth Day History

The Complete History of Earth Day - How it All Started

What were the exact events that led to the creation of Earth Day 40 years back? Find out everything about Earth Day along with some interesting facts, from the following article.
HelpSaveNature Staff
Last Updated: Mar 13, 2018
"That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself."―Gaylord Nelson, founding father of Earth Day.

It took the steely determination and unflagging perseverance of one individual to arouse and unite the passions of nearly 20 million Americans that culminated into the creation of Earth Day. More importantly, it finally put the need to urgently harness and limit environmental decadence, before things reached irreversible extents, on the map of the nation's political agendum. Let us see exactly how Gaylord Nelson, then Senator of Wisconsin, managed to rip off the blindfolds of politicians, forcing them to see how the Earth was in need of immediate help to recuperate after being made subject to industrial rape everyday.

History of Earth Day

Dubbed 'The Conservation Governor' for introducing major environment-friendly movements in the state of Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson did his own bit to save mother nature. Nagged continuously by the alarming thought that "the state of our environment was simply a non-issue in the politics of the country", Nelson went about initiating and sanctioning major water body cleaning campaigns, natural resource conservation projects, and even created green jobs, within his peripheries. But once he ascended to the chair of a US Senator in the year 1962, he tried to open up the eyes of the government policy makers and lay bare the unimaginable abysmal depths of degeneration that the Earth had reached. Back then, no industrial proprietor could be sued or taken to court for spewing all its industrial wastes into water bodies or breathing out venomous fumes freely into the atmosphere. Simply put, there wasn't any Clean Water Act or Clean Air Act that could limit anybody's drive to guiltlessly damage the earth. In 1962, Nelson communicated his fears to Attorney General Robert Kennedy and urged him to convince the then President of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy to take up this issue of environmental conservation during the President's 11-state conservation tour that was scheduled to take place in 1963 over a period of 5 days. J. F. Kennedy approved of the idea and did his best to campaign for the cause, but unfortunately, it was a failure.

Nelson, however, refused to give up. He clawed his way through with the cause, trying to spread awareness in his small ways. He gave speeches to people from all strata of society. He traveled to almost 25 different states all over the country, demonstrating devastating future outcomes such as water and air pollution and smog. He especially tried to draw the attraction of the masses who belonged to the grassroot level, for he knew it was with them that the ultimate strength lay and it was only a power outcry from them that could coerce the politicians sit up in their cushy chair.

Gradually, a wave of realization swept over the crowds and it became evident through the stark difference in survey results that were taken in between 1965 to 1969. In a span of 4 years only, the number of people who seemed to think that addressing the issue of limiting and reversing the effects of air and water pollution as one of the first three priorities of the government shot up from a meager 15% in 1965, to a desperate and overwhelming 53% in 1969. However, 2 significant events drove Nelson's point firmly home with a jolt. The first was the article that was published by the Time magazine wherein it portrayed the dismal condition of the river Cuyahoga in Cleveland. The fact that the pollution of the river had reached such an over saturation point that approximately thirteen times did it catch significant fires, the first time being in 1968.

The article was made public on 22nd June, 1969 wherein Time chose to describe the state of the river with words like Cuyahoga 'oozes rather than flows' and a person 'does not drown but decays' if he happens to fall into the river. In fact, the reach between Akron to Cleveland has no aquatic life thriving in the river. This article left the crowds boiling, when they were already frustrated with the 28th January, 1969 news which said that one of the offshore platforms under Union Oil, in the Dos Cuadras Offshore Oil Field and suffered an explosion which resulted in the spilling of 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel and its surrounding coastline, for 10 whole days. Approximately 10,000 birds perished due to this ecological disaster, clearly induced by steady observance of ignorance.

Nelson visited the Santa Barbara devastation sites, and it was en route to San Francisco in the summer of '69 that it suddenly struck him that he could use the same method to reach out to people who effectively roused people enough to join the anti Vietnam War cause. At a college campus 'teach-in's, he stated that, "If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda." He immediately organized three such sessions at San Jose State, Dickinson College (Pennsylvania) and the University of Michigan.

Finally, on 20th September, 1969, during a Seattle conference, Nelson floated the idea of observing one day in spring the next year, to offer a stage to the ever-growing issue of environmental degradation. The idea became a reason for celebration for all those factions who had been rallying for environmental issues without any avail. The media transmitted it to every nook and cranny of America, and people couldn't hold their enthusiasm and support for Nelson anymore. Letters, faxes, and inquiries just wouldn't stop flowing in for the next four months and several students from all around the country came forward to give a proper shape to this movement, as they felt that all the enthusiasm of the people would be lost if this movement was not channelized properly. Nelson established Environmental Teach-In, Inc., with California Republican Representative Paul N. McCloskey as Nelson's co-chairman, and students were employed to deal with the masses. Denis Hayes, then a Harvard graduation pupil and today a renowned environmental advocate, was made the coordinator of activities.

On 30th November, 1969, reporter Gladwin Hill's write-up in The New York Times added more productive oil to the blaze already glowing bright in the hearts of American citizens. He wrote that, "Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation's campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam...a national day of observance of environmental problems...is being planned for next spring...when a nationwide environmental 'teach-in'...coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned..."

In December, 1969, Hayes addressed a group in the University of Columbia where four students Fred Kent, Pete Grannis, Kristin Hubbard, and William Hubbard were tremendously moved by the cause. They traveled to New York City to participate actively in the movement. Kent started to look for a rented office. Fate favored them when Mayor Lindsay offered to close down the 5th Avenue office to give them the premises. In Kristin Hubbard's words, "A giant cheer went up in the office on that day. From that time on, we used Mayor Lindsay's offices and even his staff. I was Speaker Coordinator but had tremendous help from Lindsay staffer Judith Crichton."

As the excitement grew, Nelson's staff, Linda Billings and John Heritage, struggled to keep up within the Senate Office and it was then that temporary lodgings were provided by John Gardner, Founder of Common Cause, so that a impermanent head office could be set up in Washington D.C., circa the middle of January in 1970.

In the city of Philadelphia, however, a group consisting of mostly University of Pennsylvania pupils gathered to make a team called Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia who decided that just a day to showcase all that they had in mind wouldn't suffice. So, they decided to organize and entire week from April 16 to 22, called 'Earth Week'.

On the 22nd of April 1970, 20 million Americans participated actively demonstrating their love for planet earth uninhibitedly. About from 10,000 elementary and high schools, 2,000 colleges and over 1,000 communities participated in the movement. Accompanying enthused students were equally excited agriculturists, housewives, labor union members, scientists, and politicians. While U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie, who eventually drafted the historic Clean Air Act of 1970, gave the keynote speech in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia on the day, Mayor Lindsay opened up Central Park for the jubilation of Earth Day. Even Edward Kennedy, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, and Barry Goldwater, U.S. Senator from Arizona, actively participated in the celebrations.

How he managed to do it? All Nelson says today is, "Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time not the resources to organize the 20 million demonstrators who participated from thousands of schools and local communities. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself."

The UN Secretary-General sanctioned a proclamation which declared every Earth Day to be an official international holiday, on 21st March, 1971. Much later, President Bush, Sr. declared Earth Day to be a national holiday in the US.

In 1990, Earth Day went on to become a global phenomena. 141 countries participated in the celebration and around 200 million people were mobilized. It saw the upholding of the recycling revolution that was gradually becoming a preferred way of life for conscious earthlings. In 2000, the number of countries rose to 184. It was the Internet that allowed people and activists from all around the globe to communicate at a single forum, addressing a singular issue, the welfare of the Earth.

Earth Day Aftermath

The 1970 Earth Day achieved groundbreaking response and path breaking results.
  • On 2nd December, 1970, President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which was given the responsibility of repairing, restoring, and maintaining the environment.
  • The Clean Air Act (1970), to stall further air pollution, and the Clean Water Act (1972), so that national water bodies remain 'fishable'' and 'swimmable', were passed. The Clean Drinking Water Act was also passed in 1974.
  • The Endangered Species Act was sanctioned in 1973, in a bid to conserve the bio-diversity of the planet.
  • The Toxic Substances Control Act came into practice on 11th October, 1976, which entrusted the EPA to keep a check on the industries and keep a track whether timely upgradations are in lieu.
One of the most interesting Earth Day facts happens to be the Earth Day ecology flag, which was designed by cartoonist Ron Cobb. According to him, the green hued symbol is the combination of the alphabets 'E' and 'O' in the lower case. The letters were chosen to stand for the words 'environment' and 'organism'.

A lot of great environmentalists were born on 22nd April―Saint Francis of Assisi, Julius Sterling Morton, John Muir, and Eddie Albert. All these people tried to bring about a change and made the most of their resources to enlighten and arouse people from their convenient slumber. Even after 40 years of celebrating Earth Day, we still know what environmental pollution is. The biggest enemy of every organism on Earth is a much talked about phenomenon called global warming, and let's face it, we brought this on ourselves very knowingly. The saddest part is we are still pretty okay with not doing anything about it. I am not the first person to say this, but you do not have to be an active member of some group, organization or team, shouting out "Go Green" with huge placards in hand to do your bit in order to keep our home planet breathing. It doesn't take much to close the taps to limit the wastage of water, turn off the lights when you leave the room, not waste paper, nurture a few plants in our balcony, and not litter your surrounding unnecessarily. By doing all this, you may not become a world-renowned person. But you will certainly become a part of Earth Day in your own tiny way, and who knows, may even go on to change other people around you for good. Always remember, every tiny bit matters for the formation of a whole. Just like Mother Teresa said,

"We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop."
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