The success of the first Earth Day was incredible: bringing in an impressive number of people from all demographics and political parties to celebrate the environment.
The idea of Earth Day came about in the 1960s, when there were very few environmental laws protecting our air and water. Laws were limited because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had not been established yet. Contaminated air and water seemed to be the norm during this time as industry pollution continued to increase. However, a few people saw this arising issue and thankfully began to work on promoting environmental protection. Gaylord Nelson, also named the father of Earth Day, was one of these few. Nelson’s ideas grew into a worldwide celebration for the planet.
In the 1960s, Nelson saw how college students began to protest the Vietnam War from anti-war “teach-ins.” He wanted to raise the public’s awareness about environmental issues from the energy of the anti-war movement. Nelson’s idea was to put these issues in the national spotlight and on a political agenda by sponsoring a “national teach-in on the environment.”
Serving two terms as the Governor of Wisconsin, Nelson earned the title “the Conservation Governor” as he began his environmental legacy. Nelson was later elected to the US Senate in 1962 and worked to bring environmental issue to the national stage for 18 years.
In September 1969, Nelson encouraged Americans to dedicate the next spring to environmental education. This nationwide event gained great enthusiasm, so Nelson had to establish a sperate organization called Environmental Teach-In, Inc. to help people prepare. To be the nation’s coordinator for teach-in, Nelson hired Denis Hayes, who then built a staff of 85 to promote this upcoming event across the country. Nelson also hired scientists, academics, environmentalists, and students to establish a steering committee and persuaded Congressman Pete McCloskey to serve as his co-chair.
On April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans participated across the U.S. and marched in massive rallies to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment. Rumor has it, April 22 was chosen because it was between colleges’ spring breaks and final exams.
The first Earth Day had an extremely successful turnout. 10,000 elementary and high schools, 2,000 colleges and over 1,000 communities combined to make 20 million Americans who participated that day. What continues to amaze people is that all the planning for this event was done without emails, cell phones, the internet or even fax machines.
With much success, Senator Nelson’s idea worked. Environmental issues were given national and political attention because of the first Earth Day. Consequently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and numerous laws protecting the environment were created, including the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Water Pollution and Control Act Amendments, the Resource Recovery Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
Mobilizing over 200 million people in 141 countries, the first Earth Day in 1990 went global. Environmental issues were now a worldwide topic and influenced the 192 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In 2000 Earth Day focused on climate change and clean energy, and 5,000 environmental groups and 184 countries participated.
Sadly, Gaylord Nelson passed in July 2005. His legacy lives on through the continued celebration of Earth Day. It’s up to our generation now to keep our planet healthy!