What is Earth Day

The first seeds that went on to become Earth Day were planted way back in 1962 by Senator Gaylord Nelson. Having been a longtime environmentalist, he had an epiphany as to how he could draw attention to the issue of the environment. He had always wanted to devise a way to bring environmental topics into the political spotlight, so he concluded that he could convince President Kennedy to acknowledge the issues by going on a national conservation tour. Kennedy quickly agreed to the idea, and soon after embarked on a five-day, eleven-state conservation tour. While the tour did not succeed in getting the environment any significant national political attention, it was most definitely a step in the right direction.

Senator Nelson continued speaking out about the environment all across the country in the following years. Signs of environmental degradation were becoming more apparent, and the American people were starting to take notice. Unfortunately, most political officials and institutions neglected to acknowledge the growing concern. In the summer of 1969, after witnessing some of the rousing anti-Vietnam War protests, it occurred to Senator Nelson that a large grassroots movement to spread environmental awareness could prove to be very effective. At a Seattle conference in September, 1969, he announced that there would be a nationwide demonstration in the name of the environment in the spring of 1970. The news was spread all across the country via the wire services, and soon the story became viral. Finally the people had a forum to express their growing concerns about the injustices that were occurring to the environment. The overwhelming enthusiasm preceding the first Earth Day assured that it would be a great success. The buzz was so significant, three months prior to Earth Day, Joe Gardner, Founder of the Common Cause, created a temporary headquarters for Earth Day in Washington, DC, where enthusiastic college students were employed, along with famed environmental activist Denis Hayes as coordinator of activities.

Come April 22nd, 1970, as predicted, Earth Day was a monumental success. Although Senator Nelson and his team did not have the time or the resources available to organize a mass demonstration, that is exactly what they got. Some 20 million demonstrators voiced their concern for environmental issues, along with thousands of schools and communities that also participated. American folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger spoke at the Washington D.C. event. In attendance at the New York City event were popular actors Paul Newman and Ali McGraw.

Several laws that were passed shortly after are accredited to the success of the first Earth Day, including the Clean Air Act, and laws that protected drinking water, wild lands, and the ocean. Another important side effect of the movement was the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Earth Day has since grown substantially, and has been recognized every year since, observed by over 500 million people worldwide and by governments in 175 different countries. According to the nonprofit “Earth Day Network”, Earth Day is now the largest secular holiday in the world.