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The History of Earth Day: How the Movement Began

The History of Earth Day: How the Movement Began


By Phil Fry

Humans are capable of extraordinary feats. The history of Earth Day is proof.

You might not believe me if I told you that one person can literally change the world, but it’s true. 

And when individuals all around the globe come together to take action for a specific cause, the results are quite profound. 

There is no better example of this than the inception of “Earth Day.” 

Mark your calendars! April 22nd is the day that we as a global community observe Earth Day. It’s an event that spawned a global movement of celebration and awareness about our impact on the planet. Earth Day was the primary motivator behind many important environmental protection laws… Both in the United States and around the world.



The Surprising History of Earth Day

Lately, it seems like when we talk about the state of our environment we’re prone to thoughts of gloom and doom.

Global warming is only becoming more of a relevant topic these days. Our ocean’s aquatic life face devastation from unimaginable amounts of plastic waste. Deforestation is surmounting. And the earth’s biodiversity and wildlife seem to be shrinking further – and faster – as time moves forward. 

However, despite all of the issues our planet is experiencing right now, there have been moments in history that progress has been made. Progress to protect our environment, and raise awareness for the environment’s well-being.



Observance of Earth Day

Observance of Earth Day has inspired new fields of study. It has led to the establishment of environmental nonprofits. Protests by activists, community clean-ups, and similar restorative actions have also come about. All because someone dared to dream of the day we call “Earth Day”. The history of Earth Day is truly amazing!

Before Rachel Carson’s highly circulated book, Silent Spring, took the public by storm in 1962, things were different. Acceptance of damaging habits abounded. Smoke-stacks and black clouds of smog were commonplace in our cities, towns, and rural country-sides.

There was a constant haze of gray on the air, and corporations were free to dump toxic wastes into local creeks or rivers without penalty. 

Crazy to think about, right? 

In reality, this period in time was only about 60 years ago! 

And polluted air wasn’t just accepted, it was what people believed to be normal. It was what people believed were signs of prosperity, economic growth, and societal progress. 

Pollution was a mark of industrial achievement! It was something to be celebrated! We believed that technological advancements were a representation of our ability to innovate. We held to the idea that they increased the quality of life for every individual.



The First Steps Forward 

In some ways, we weren’t completely wrong. Advancements in technology do bring new and improved ways for us to work, collaborate, and live better lives.

Really, we’re not that different today than we were then. And Silent Spring’s core message remains true. Human technology can create dangerous implications for our health and the environment. This includes chemical pesticides as well.

Nowadays, we all have some basic knowledge about how burning fossil fuels like coal and oil are harmful to the environment. We know that raising cattle for the meat industry can contribute to climate change through Carbon Dioxide emissions.

And we have more than just awareness about these issues. We have many politicians, organizations, and global citizens working to solve the problems facing our planet.

But how did one secular day of observance pave the way for real and meaningful global change? That too is part of the history of Earth Day!



The Courage To Act

Inspired by student-led anti-war protests and the public’s emerging environmental concerns, Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin took action. He began cultivating a national grassroots movement. A  movement to address vanishing natural habitats around the United States as well as air and water pollution.

After placing Republican Congressman, Pete McCloskey, as his co-chair, Nelson brought Denis Hayes aboard. Mr. Hayes is a student activist who left Harvard after the senator recruited him to organize campus teach-ins on April 22nd.

This day was chosen to coincide with a weekday that fell between Spring Break and University Final Exams. The idea was to maximize student involvement.

When Hayes recognized the potential Earth Day held to rally Americans across the nation into action, he assembled a small team. This group of fewer than 100 individuals was to organize events around the country. Soon, there was a myriad of faith groups and organizations working to turn the 22nd into a day of monumental change.

And after naming the date “Earth Day”, national media outlets brought the event to the public’s attention. 

This resulted in the collective efforts of 20 million Americans. It united private environmentally-focused groups. Ones who gathered in their communities to demonstrate against a deteriorating environment. To stand against industrial impacts on human health.



How Earth Day Is Changing Our World For the Better 

The very first Earth day, took place 51 years ago, and soon after came the creation of the following bodies and laws:

These and a host of other environmental restoration laws. Ones that were revolutionary for the health of American citizens and North American wildlife.

And so began a long legacy of individuals from around the nation and the world. A legacy where people became more conscious of their environmental footprint. One where taking action to preserve our natural world is the norm.

Twenty years after the first Earth Day it was easy to feel and measure the momentum. On April 22nd, 1990, Hayes helped mobilize 200 million people from 141 different countries. America’s national day of observance became a global phenomenon.

The influence of this event led to the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit. There, global leaders convened to discuss solutions for global warming.

In 2000, Earth Day saw an organized effort across the world to create new conservation areas. There was a landmark rally for the First Amendment at the National Mall in Washington. The internet had given individuals the ability to create and organize their own Earth Day efforts.

Just five years ago, 195 nations signed the Paris Agreement on Earth Day. The international accord signified that world leaders had committed to address the negative impacts of climate change. It attested to how they would work to drastically cut the carbon emissions their countries produce.

Today it’s estimated that more than a billion people on the planet take part in Earth Day events each year!



Why Earth Day 2021 Is So Important and How You Can Participate 

Now, 51 years later, Earth Day 2021 is shaping up to be an important moment for the history of Earth Day, and our planet, once again. 

With global vaccine efforts underway to end the spread of COVID-19, we’re coming into the day of observance with more shared personal experience than ever before. In one way or another, we’ve all been impacted by this pandemic.

COVID-19 is a Zoonotic disease, meaning that human impact on our biodiversity through things like deforestation and illegal wildlife trade run the risk for us to witness another animal-to-human spread virus much sooner than we would all prefer. 

And it’s been a little while, but do you remember the Australian wildfires from January of 2020? How about the Colorado wildfires? Or the numerous ones in California and the Pacific Northwest?

Scientists recently theorized that the Amazon rainforest, sometimes known as the “earth’s lung”, could be emitting more greenhouse gases than it absorbs. Who would have thought rising global temperatures could cause such a thing to happen?

Our best natural defense against climate change is in more danger than it ever has been before. 

This year, and the years that follow, are becoming incredibly crucial for our environment.



No Time Like the Present

This means there has never been a time like the present to celebrate Earth Day. To participate in whatever way that you can. There has also never been a time in which we need another monumental effort from individuals and their communities. An effort to address the challenges our future holds. To bring awareness to Mother Earth’s plight.

Because in the end, we are all affected by environmental issues. It’s only a matter of the time it will take for us to be personally impacted by the results.

Thankfully, this Earth Day is once again following its tradition of influencing politics and government, as President Biden is hosting a Leaders’ Climate Summit at the White House. 

And you can make a difference as well!  

Whether you start a backyard garden with your family, spend the day cleaning up a local park, or make a commitment to recycling all of your plastics, Earth Day is a day to appreciate the home we all share and reconnect with nature! 

There are also a lot of virtual events online, or you can choose to donate to a non-profit organization like Ocean Blue Project! 

For every dollar donated, Ocean Blue removes one pound of plastic from our oceans! Doing so would be a meaningful way to contribute to 2021’s Earth Day theme of “Restore our Earth!”

You can find out more about Earth Day events here, or check your community’s website and social media accounts to help take action this Earth Day! 

How will you be a part of the history of Earth Day this year?

Author Bio: Phil Fry is a copywriter interested in education, social media, and mental health.