Millions of people worldwide will honor Earth Day on Thursday, April 22. This holiday was created in 1970 to raise awareness about environmental issues and to channel people’s energy into taking action for the earth. Its roots go back to Wisconsin and a concerned junior senator intent on sounding an alarm for a troubled environment.
Earth Day Reflects a Time of Change
Designed to harness students’ energy during a time of social protest, Earth Day is considered the beginning of the environmental decade. Concern for environmental health had been building since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Then, in 1969, the country watched as Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River burst into flames because of chemical waste. This event heightened the awareness for nature’s plight and was a pivotal moment in the development of modern environmentalism.
The Creators of Earth Day
In 1970, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson began organizing. He sought to bring attention to industrial chemical pollution, smog, water and air pollution, oil spills, and unchecked emissions from cars and smokestacks. Previously, these issues had barely been areas of public awareness or discussion. But at this moment in history they became center stage.
He created Earth Day with the help of environmental-minded Congressman Pete McCloskey working as co-chair, and student activist Denis Hayes, who built a staff of 85 people who would work nationally to organize college teach-ins and community and citywide rallies.
A Successful Movement is Born
On April 22, 1970, 20 million people participated in the first official Earth Day. The effects of this day of action were profound. Where previously few people listed concern with the environment as a priority, after Earth Day, 25% of the population in the United States said it was a priority. In December of the same year that the first Earth Day took place, the Environmental Protection Agency was created. Soon followed groundbreaking legislation. This included the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act. Afterward, Congress passed the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Earth Day is Still Growing
Earth Day has grown steadily since 1970. In 1990, it became a global phenomenon, with 200 million people from 141 countries participating. And in 2000, citizens and activists from 184 countries harnessed the power of the internet to make a determined call to leaders saying that the global environment was a priority. The movement is still progressing. In 2010, the organizers focused on clean energy and global warming, and in 2020, the focus was climate change. A billion people now take part in Earth Day activities.
In 2021, we’ll honor Earth Day on Saturday, April 24 by hosting Celebrate the Earth! Spend the day taking part in educational activities around the Center, including learning how to identify native and migrating birds in a citizen science project, making an eco-friendly craft to take home, and more. These are great ways to engage with nature and honor an important day dedicated to environmental consciousness and action.