From 20 Million Participants to Over a Billion: The History of Earth Day
“The height of counterculture in the United States, 1970 brought the death of Jimi Hendrix, the last Beatles album, and Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ War raged in Vietnam and students nationwide overwhelmingly opposed it.
At the time, Americans were slurping leaded gas through massive V8 sedans. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. ‘Environment’ was a word that appeared more often in spelling bees than on the evening news.
On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.”
Almost 50 years ago, society started coming together to raise awareness for devastating environmental issues that were commonly overlooked. Like every movement, Earth Day started with one’s core beliefs being challenged into finding a way to improve the current situation. Earth Day’s concept is the brain child of Gaylord Nelson, at the time an U.S. Senator from Wisconsin. He had seen enough of destruction done to our environment after the catastrophic 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. While watching the massive anti-war movement, launched by college students all across the nation, he came up with a solution to harness that energy and shed light on environmental protection, by using rallies to thrust the current environmental recklessness into the national spotlight.
He broadcasted his idea to the national media, as a “national teach-in on the environment”. With the help of Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman serving as his co-chair, and Denis Hayes, from Harvard as the national coordinator, they developed a national staff and promoted 85 events across the US. In order to maximize the number of college-aged Americans able to participate, they picked the date of April 22, since it fell between college Spring Break and Final Exams.
The first Earth Day received tremendous bipartisan support and was endorsed by all Americans; from rural farmers to urban dwellers, from white collar workers to blue collar workers, and from the young to the old. When asked about the first Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson replied, “It was a gamble, but it worked.” The idea to bring people together to peacefully stand up for the environment resulted in the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. With Earth Day becoming bigger every year, while continuing to educate and advocate for environmental protect on a global scale, it was definitely worth the gamble.