The History of Earth Day

The creation of the environmental movement we know today got its start with the first Earth Day.

Taking place every year on April 22, Earth Day is an international day of observance, activism, and education focused on protecting the environment. Earth Day was established more than 50 years ago, and the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was a groundbreaking moment in history. 

The creation of the environmental movement we know today got its start with the first Earth Day. In the 1960s and earlier, there were no environmental laws or regulations. This resulted in outrageously severe air and water pollution. Not only did this damage the environment, but it was also extremely detrimental to human health. Not only that, most Americans had little to no understanding of the issue. 

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring 

Author Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published in 1962. This New York Times bestseller was popular in 24 countries, selling at least 500,000 copies. Historians draw a direct line between the influence of this book and the eventual creation of Earth Day and the modern environmental movement. 

Gaylord Nelson and Denis Hayes

Gaylord Nelson was elected to the United States Senate as a Senator for Wisconsin in 1962. During his 18 years in the Senate, he became known for his dedication to environmental causes and legislation. 

It was Nelson who first decided there should be an Earth Day. To further his plan, he enlisted the help of Denis Hayes, a student activist. Hayes’ belief in environmentalism stemmed from his experience of unfettered pollution in his Washington State hometown. He arranged college campus teach-ins to mark the first Earth Day and draw awareness to environmental problems. He and the organizers selected April 22 as the date, as it was a time at which the most students possible would be able to take part. 

But Denis Hayes was much more than just a student activist. He was a visionary. Hayes immediately understood that Earth Day could have an impact far beyond university campuses. He put together staff across the country to lead educational and activist events. Hayes was called on to further develop Earth Day in the 1970s, 1980s, and even 1990s. 

How Earth Day Impacted Legislation 

The first Earth Day’s impact extended far beyond what Denis Hayes or anyone else could have imagined. Direct results of the first Earth Day and the resulting environmental movement included legislation such as the Water Quality Improvement Act (1970), the Clean Air Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), and the Toxic Substances Control Act (1976). 

It’s only too easy to assume that there’s always been an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but nothing could be further from the truth. The EPA dates back to only 1970, soon after the marches that took place on the first Earth Day. 

The Evolution of Earth Day 

Earth Day has developed and grown in importance with every passing decade. 1990 was a significant year, as that was when it expanded to 141 countries all over the world. Focus on the threat of global warming and the need for clean energy became stronger in the late 1990s and the year 2000. By the time of Earth Day 2000, it was observed in 184 countries, and there were 5,000 environmental groups all over the world. 

Why is Earth Day Important Today? 

Earth Day is even more relevant than it was in the past. With each passing year, more people around the world observe it and use it as a way to spread information and education on protecting the environment. It calls attention to serious environmental issues that aren’t being adequately addressed by politicians and governments.    

Many organizations plan demonstrations and other activist events for Earth Day to communicate to their national governments what kinds of new environmental legislation their countries need. The day has become so significant that experts consider it to be the world’s largest secular day of observance. It recognizes how crucial the health and well-being of the environment is to the future, not only of the planet but humanity and every species on the planet. 

With the continuing and existential threat of global warming, Earth Day will only continue to grow in importance.


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