An estimated twenty million Americans took part in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Virtually every community from Maine to California hosted activities. Congress adjourned for the day. All the television networks gave it significant coverage. In New York, hundreds of thousands of people jammed Fifth Avenue from Fourteenth Street all the way to Central Park to listen to politicians, scientists, and celebrities. In San Jose, California, college students held a funeral for the internal combustion engine, and buried a new car.
Earth Day arrived at the close of the 1960s—a time of cultural and political turmoil. At its core was a growing recognition that unconstrained growth could produce a legacy of poisoned streams, filthy air, urban blight, and vanishing wilderness. Earth Day tied these issues, and a wide array of other concerns, together under the environmental banner and greatly magnified their clout and visibility. It is generally cited as marking the birth of the modern U.S. environmental movement.
Initially, some activists worried that environmental concerns might undermine other causes, such as peace and civil rights. This did not happen. Indeed, with its successful reengagement of the politically alienated middle class, Earth Day arguably helped revitalize a civil society that was becoming a bit frayed by violence at the end of the 1960s.
The roots of Earth Day can be traced to a speech given by Democratic Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson at the University of Washington in September of 1969. Decrying a large oil spill in Santa Barbara as emblematic of environmental problems, he called for a teach-in on the environment at colleges across the country, modeled on the earlier anti–Vietnam War teach-ins.
Senator Nelson repeated variations of this speech over the next few months to enthusiastic audiences. Based on that response, he created a nonprofit organization to organize the campaign. He invited Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey to cochair the board, and asked Denis Hayes, a politically active recent graduate of Stanford University, to serve as National Coordinator.
Hayes quickly rented some ramshackle offices and assembled the core national staff. Eventually, the Washington, D.C.–based staff grew to about sixty, supplemented by a few hundred, mostly youthful volunteers. Some had been active in politics as supporters of Gene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, or John Lindsay. Others were drawn from the counterculture , and were interested in recycling, organic food, solar power, and alternatives to the automobile. Under the pressure of an April 22 deadline, this diverse group put their differences aside and forged a very effective team.
In early 1970 this small group of young people, most in their early twenties, made a series of decisions that were to shape and propel the environmental movement through the next few decades.
The name "Earth Day" was chosen by Hayes and his staff over beer and pizza one night for use in a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times. Julian Koenig, the New York advertising executive who designed the ad for free, proposed Earth Day (his favorite) along with numerous other candidate names (Environment Day, Ecology Day, E Day) in other mockups of the ad. The ad, headlined "Earth Day: The Beginning," elicited enormous attention in the media.
Having watched other social movements of the 1960s grow exclusionary with the passage of time, Earth Day's organizers explicitly set out to engage the huge middle class that they saw as the fulcrum of American politics. They reached out to labor (organized labor was the largest source of financial support for Earth Day); K–12 education groups (NEA, AFT, and NSTA); civic and religious groups; and national associations of zoos, museums, and libraries. They took special care to cultivate strong relationships with women's groups such as the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, PTAs, garden clubs, and the scouts. All were approached and urged to mobilize their huge networks of members across the country.
As the New York Times described the resulting campaign: "Conservatives were for it. Liberals were for it. Democrats, Republicans and independents were for it. So were the ins, the outs, the Executive and Legislative branches of government."
As the Earth Day campaign grew, an enormous range of issues emerged from the grassroots . These included health-damaging levels of air pollution, the misuse of pesticides (raised earlier by Rachel Carson in her landmark book, Silent Spring ), freeways cutting through vibrant urban neighborhoods, defoliation resulting from the use of mutagenic herbicides in Vietnam, the explosive growth of the human population, the flushing of raw sewage and industrial wastes into the nation's rivers and the Great Lakes, massive clear cutting of the national forests, the environmental impacts of a proposed new supersonic airliner (the SST), and others. To tie all these complex issues together, Earth Day's organizers urged that the lessons of ecology—the study of the interrelationship of all creatures with their environment—be employed to create sustainable human environments.
Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from republicans and democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. The size and coverage of Earth Day led President Richard Nixon (who was no fan of the environmental movement, but who expected Senator Ed Muskie, an environmental leader, to be his opponent in the 1972 election) to propose the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The tough Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed with only a handful of dissenting votes in both houses of Congress. Seven of a "Dirty Dozen" congressmen—so designated by the Earth Day organizers—were defeated in the 1970 elections. The military was forced to halt the use of mutagenic defoliants in Southeast Asia. Development of the SST was halted. The Federal Occupational Health and Safety Act aimed at "in-plant pollution" was passed by a coalition of labor and environmental groups. Within the next few years, such landmarks as the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act were passed by wide margins.
Seldom, if ever, has a new issue so broadly and swiftly permeated the nation. Within a couple of years, the environment was influencing almost every aspect of American business, politics, law, education, culture, and lifestyle.
As 1990 approached, and again before 2000, environmental leaders asked Denis Hayes to organize anniversary campaigns. In 1990 Earth Day turned its attention overseas, ultimately catalyzing events in 141 countries. Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro—the largest gathering of heads of state in history.
An estimated 200 million participants in 184 nations took part in Earth Day 2000, which included the first national environmental campaign in the history of China. Earth Day 2000 focused on global warming and low-carbon energy alternatives. It helped create worldwide political support to implement the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 2001 over the strong opposition of the first Bush administration.
Earth Day has evolved into the first global secular holiday. Much as Americans use the occasion of Labor Day, Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Day, and other holidays to reflect on important issues, people everywhere now take time each April 22 to reflect on the health of the planet, and to ask what they can do in their jobs and their lives to improve it. A coordinating body, the Earth Day Network, promotes and coordinates activities among thousands of participating organizations from every corner of the planet.
see also Activism; Hayes, Denis; Nelson, Gaylord.
hayes, denis. (2000). the official guide to planet repair. washington, dc: island press.
mowrey, marc, and redmond, tim. (1993). not in our backyard: the people and events that shaped america's modern environmental movement. new york: william morrow & co.
the earth day network web site. available from http://www.earthday.net.
Earth Day is an environment-oriented celebration that occurs every spring. There are, in fact, two competing Earth Days; one is celebrated every April 22 and the other every spring equinox (on or about March 20). Both Earth Days were first celebrated in 1970 and are still observed today. The April 22 Earth Day is acknowledged by the U.S. government; the phrase “Earth Day” usually signifies April 22 in the United States. The spring-equinox Earth Day, on the other hand, is observed by the United Nations. Earth Day is symbolically important, and even politicians who are sometimes at odds with environmental policy often take care to demonstrate their ecological consciousness on Earth Day.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
Both the April 22 and the global Spring Equinox Earth Days were first suggested in 1969. In September 1969, Senator Gaylord Nelson (1916–2005; Democrat, Wisconsin) announced that in early 1970 there would be a national demonstration on behalf of the environment (i.e., against pollution and environmental degradation, in favor of conservation). According to Nelson, he had been thinking about such a demonstration since 1962, when he persuaded President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) to make a tour of conservation sites, visiting 11 states. But the tour did little to bring more national attention to environmental issues. Nelson, still dissatisfied, sought a project that would do so.
By the late 1960s, large protests against the Vietnam war and teach-ins—intensive teaching sessions conveying anti-war information that were free to the public—had become commonplace. Nelson considered it possible to tap into this rebellious energy for pro-environmental purposes, and so, in September 1969, announced the first Earth Day. Staffers in Nelson’s office worked to coordinate the combined protest, celebration, and teach-in, but its scale quickly became so large that it became necessary for the event to be mostly self-organized by participants. Approximately 20 million demonstrators participated in Earth Day activities in the United States on April 22, 1970. Earth Day has been celebrated in the United States on that date ever since.
In 1969, another environmentalist and peace activist, John McConnell (1915–), conceived independently of celebrating an Earth Day. McConnell had arranged a global “Minute for Peace” on December 22, 1963, and it was while working on that project that he conceived of a global Earth Day. In 1969, he persuaded the city government of San Francisco (named after St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and birds) to declare March 21, 1970, the spring equinox, Earth Day. Celebrations were held in San Francisco.
The equinoctial Earth Day was dwarfed by the national Earth Day that followed almost exactly a month later, but globally, the situation is somewhat reversed, with the equinoctial Earth Day gaining wide international recognition thanks to its link to the United Nations. Every spring equinox since 1971, the Peace Bell at the United Nations headquarters in New York City (a gift from Japan in 1954, hung outdoors in a protective shrine) is rung at the exact moment of the equinox in honor of Earth Day.
Impacts and Issues
Earth Day originated at a time of explosive growth in concern for the environment and the subsequent environmental movement: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established later in 1970, the Clean
WORDS TO KNOW
ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT: A diverse social, political, and scientific movement revolving around the preservation of Earth’s environment.
EQUINOX: Either of the two times during the year when the sun crosses the plane of Earth’s equator, making night and day of approximately equal length.
GREENHOUSE GAS: A gas whose accumulation in the atmosphere increases heat retention.
Air Act was also passed that year, and the environmental activist group Greenpeace was founded in 1971.
The continuing symbolic importance of the April 22 Earth Day in the United States is shown by the care taken by politicians to honor it. For example, President George W. Bush, whose administration has been criticized by environmental groups repeatedly for such actions as being slow to declare polar bears an endangered species and for refusing to have the EPA regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants, has arranged a number of Earth-friendly public appearances on various Earth Days. On Earth Day 2004, Bush visited a nature preserve in Wells, Maine, while Maine environmentalists protested outside the preserve. In 2005, he planned to celebrate Earth Day by helping volunteers repair a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but stormy weather forced a change of plans and the president ended up speaking briefly to reporters and supporters in an airplane hangar. In 2006 Bush began Earth Day by taking a bike ride through a redwood forest in California. Later that day he gave a speech promoting his plan for fuel-cell powered hydrogen cars.
Earth Day Network, a coalition of groups and activists worldwide dedicated to celebrating the April 22 Earth Day, has been active in efforts to combat global warming. In 2006 the organization joined the Clinton Climate Initiative, an attempt to foster international reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions promoted by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Nelson, Gaylord, et al. Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.
Bumiller, Elisabeth. “Energy Politics on Earth Day as Bush Tours California.” New York Times (April 23, 2006).
Stevenson, Richard W. “Bad Weather Forces Change in Bush’s Earth Day Plans.” New York Times (April 23, 2005).
EnviroLink. “How the First Earth Day Came About.” http://earthday/envirolink.org/history.html (accessed April 14, 2008).
Inspired by anti-war "teach-ins" and the activist culture of the late 1960s, United States Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin organized the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, to raise awareness of environmental issues and elevate the state of the environment into mainstream political discourse. Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring (1962), examined why there were increasing levels of smog in the nation's cities, and focused attention on environmental disasters such as the Santa Barbara oil spill (1969) and the fire on Cleveland's Cuyahoga River due to oil and chemical pollution (1969), and gave rise to local groups of concerned citizens and activists. Enlightening photographs of the Earth taken by astronauts underscored the fact that we inhabit a finite system, small in comparison with the vastness of the solar system, and changed the way people visualized the planet. On that first Earth Day, an estimated 20 million people participated in peaceful demonstrations, lectures, and celebrations all across the country—10,000 grade schools and high schools, 2,000 colleges, and 1,000 communities were involved. Extensive media coverage of the events succeeded in alerting people to the deteriorating condition of the environment and increased the influence of environmental groups on government and industry. For many, Earth Day 1970 radically altered the image of nature and how society should treat it, and marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement.
The dramatic rise in citizen awareness after Earth Day made pollution a major news story. Programs on pollution appeared on television, newspapers hired environmental reporters, advertisements stressed the ecological qualities of products, and books and magazines addressed the protection of nature. Within months of the original Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency was created. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and several other important environmental laws were passed in the early 1970s. Politicians spoke out on ecological issues in their campaigns and speeches. Companies that violated pollution laws were taken to court, and membership in many environmental groups doubled and tripled. The construction of nuclear power plants in the United States halted in 1978. Many experienced activists, trained in the anti-war, civil rights, and women's movements, used civil disobedience to combat polluters. Subsequent Earth Days continued to put pressure on government and industry to act responsibly toward the environment.
Along with some environmental organizations, Earth Day lost steam during the pro-environmental Carter administration, as people perceived that ecological problems were being addressed. Some conservation efforts also prompted an angry backlash by conservative groups. During the 1980s, the Reagan and Bush administrations systematically dismantled many environmental laws. When Reagan named the imprudent and insensitive James Watt to the position of Secretary of the Interior, however, environmental organizations became rejuvenized and their membership rolls increased. In 1989, the editors of Time magazine abandoned their tradition of featuring a man or woman of the year in favor of featuring "The Endangered Planet." In reaction to such environmental concerns as global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer, and such eco-disasters as Bhopal, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, organizers of Earth Day intensified their efforts on the twentieth anniversary in 1990.
In 1990, Earth Day turned global. On April 22, Earth Day united more people concerned about a single cause than any other event in the history of the world—139 nations participated. The New York Times reported that 200 million people took part in the largest grass-roots demonstration in history. More than one million people gathered in Central Park to hear speakers and entertainers, and more than 200,000 people assembled in front of the United States Capitol to listen to music and speeches.
The environmental movement is one of the most successful and enduring reform movements of the twentieth century. A majority of Americans now believe that the poor quality of the environment is one of our most serious national problems. Millions of families take for granted the policy of reduce, reuse, and recycle. While all environmental accomplishments since 1970 cannot be directly attributed to Earth Day, it has succeeded in transforming a fairly specialized interest into a pervasive, popular one, and has made ecological consciousness part of the American value system.
Cahn, Robert, and Patricia Cahn. "Did Earth Day Change the World?" Environment. September, 1990, 16-42.
Devall, Bill. "Twenty-Five Years since Earth Day." Humboldt Journal of Social Relations. Vol. 21, No.1, 1995, 15-34.
Dunlap, Riley, and Angela Mertig. "The Evolution of the U.S. Environmental Movement from 1970 to 1990: An Overview." Society and Natural Resources. Vol. 4, No. 3, 209-18.
Gilbert, Bil. "Earth Day plus 20, and Counting." Smithsonian. April, 1990, 46-52.
Hayes, Denis. "Earth Day 1990: Threshold of the Green Decade." World Policy Journal. Vol. 7, No. 2, 1990, 289-304.
The first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, attracted over 20 million participants in the United States. It launched the modern environmental movement and spurred the passage of several important environmental laws. It was the largest demonstration in history. People from all walks of life took part in marches, teach-ins, rallies, and speeches across the country. Congress adjourned so that politicians could attend hometown events, and cars were banned from New York's Fifth Avenue.
The event had a major impact on the nation. Following Earth Day, conservation organizations saw their memberships double and triple. Within months, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created; Congress also revised the Clean Air Act , the Clean Water Act , and other environmental laws.
The concept for Earth Day began with Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat, who in 1969 proposed a series of environmental teach-ins on college campuses across the nation. Hoping to satisfy a course requirement at Harvard by organizing a teach-in there, law student Denis Hayes flew to Washington, DC, to interview Nelson. The senator persuaded Hayes to drop out of Harvard and organize the nationwide series of events that were only a few months away. According to Hayes, Wednesday, April 22 was chosen because it was a weekday and would not compete with weekend activities. It also came before students would start "cramming" for finals, but after the winter thaw in the North.
Twenty years later, Earth Day anniversary celebrations attracted even greater participation. An estimated 200 million people in over 140 nations were involved in events ranging from a concert and rally of over a million people in New York's Central Park, to a festival in Los Angeles that attracted 30,000, to a rally of 350,000 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Earth Day 1990 activities included planting trees; cleaning up roads, highways, and beaches; building bird houses; ecology teach-ins; and recycling cans and bottles. A convoy of garbage trucks drove through the streets of Portland, Oregon, to dramatize the lack of landfill space. Elsewhere, children wore gas masks to protest air pollution , others marched in parades wearing costumes made from recycled materials, and some even released ladybugs into the air to demonstrate alternatives to harmful pesticides. The gas-guzzling car that was buried in San Jose, California, during the first Earth Day was dug up and recycled.
Abroad, Berliners planted 10,000 trees along the East-West border. In Myanmar, there were protests against the killing of elephants . Brazilians demonstrated against the destruction of their tropical rain forests. In Japan, there were demonstrations against disposable chopsticks, and 10,000 people attended a concert on an island built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay.
The 1990 version was also organized by Denis Hayes, with help from hundreds of volunteers. This time, the event was well organized and funded; it was widely-supported by both environmentalists and the business community. The United Auto Workers Union sent Earth Day booklets to all of its members, the National Education Association sent information to almost every teacher in the country, and the Methodist Church mailed Earth Day sermons to over 30,000 ministers.
The sophisticated advertising and public relations campaign, licensing of its logo, and sale of souvenirs provoked criticism that, Earth Day had become too commercial. Even oil, chemical, and nuclear firms joined in and proclaimed their love for nature . But Hayes defended the professional approach as necessary to maximize interest and participation in the event, to broaden its appeal, and to launch a decade of environmental activism that would force world leaders to address the many threats to the planet. He also pointed out that while foundations, corporations, and individuals had donated $3.5 million, organizers turned down over $4 million from companies that were thought to be harming the environment .
The 30-year anniversary of the event was also organized by Hayes. Unfortunately, it did not produce the large numbers of the prior anniversary celebration. The movement had reached over 5,000 environmental groups who helped organize local rallies, and hundreds of thousands of people met in Washington to hear political, environmental, and celebrity speakers.
Hayes believes that the long-term success of Earth Day in securing a safe future for the planet depends on getting as many people as possible involved in environmentalism . The Earth Day celebrations he helped organize a have been a major step in that direction.
[Lewis G. Regenstein ]
Borrelli, P. "Can Earth Day Be Every Day?" Amicus Journal 12 (Spring 1990): 22-26.
Hayes, D. "Earth Day, 1990: Threshold of the Green Decade." Natural History 99 (April 1990): 55-60.
Stenger, Richard. "Thousands observe Earth Day 2000 in Washington." CNN.com (22 April 2000) [June 2002]. <http://www.cnn.com/2000/NATURE/04/22/earth.day/index.html>.
Observed for the first time on April 22, 1970, Earth Day was created by environmental activists as an unofficial holiday on which people could reflect on the planet's ecology and engage in pro-environmental activities. The cause was taken up by U.S. senator Gaylord Nelson (1916–) of Wisconsin, whose support helped make Earth Day a reality. It is estimated that some twenty million people across the United States participated in the first Earth Day through demonstrations, exhibits, and teach-ins in more than ten thousand communities.
Images of the Earth as a fragile, blue-green ball hanging in dark space were just beginning to filter into the public's consciousness, especially after the first moon landing in 1969. That year also saw two environmental disasters that captured public attention: the Santa Barbara, California, oil spill and a fire in the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. These graphic portraits helped stimulate support for Earth Day, which is now considered the beginning of the modern environmentalism (see entry under 1970s—The Way We Lived in volume 4) movement.
The original Earth Day helped arouse support for several important environmental programs undertaken by the U.S. government: the creation of the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act, all of which began in the early 1970s. For the rest of the decade, environmental activists, many of them veterans of the antiwar and civil rights movements (see entry under 1960s—The Way We Lived in volume 4) of the 1960s, continued to press government, industry, and the American public to pay attention to environmental issues. They appealed to government and industry to end pollution and halt the construction of nuclear power plants. They persuaded the general public to conserve resources and recycle their garbage.
By April 22, 1990, Earth Day was being observed by millions of people in 139 nations around the world. Some two hundred million people reportedly participated in what has been called the largest grass-roots demonstration in history. More than a million people gathered in New York City's Central Park, and two hundred thousand assembled in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to listen to music and hear speeches. Earth Day is still regarded as the symbolic beginning of a wide-scale popular movement to raise consciousness about the perilous state of the planet's ecology.
For More Information
Cahn, Robert, and Patricia Cahn. "Did Earth Day Change the World?" Environment (September 1990): 16–42.
Earth Day Network.http://www.earthday.net/ (accessed March 29, 2002).
Gilbert, Bil. "Earth Day Plus 20, and Counting." Smithsonian (April 1990): 46–52.
Hayes, Denis, "Earth Day 1990: Threshold of the Green Decade." World Policy Journal (Vol. 7, no. 2, 1990): 289–304.
EARTH DAY. Following an idea pioneered by the Democratic senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, the first nationwide Earth Day was celebrated on 22 April 1970. (A month earlier, San Francisco had organized its own Earth Day celebration at the instigation of the social activist John McConnell.) Concerned by the dark side of economic progress and inspired by the protest movements of the 1960s, twenty million Americans took to the streets to demonstrate for a cleaner environment. In its aftermath, President Richard M. Nixon proposed the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in July 1970 and Congress passed the Clean Air (1970), Clean Water (1972), and Endangered Species (1973) Acts. In 1990, Earth Day, held every year since 1970 on 22 April, became a worldwide celebration.
Hayes, Denis. The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000.