History of Earth Day


Elena Keller

Earth Day is usually celebrated in schools with projects like planting trees or drawing PSA posters. But Earth Day isn’t just a day of celebration, it’s a time to remind the world’s population of the importance of protecting the planet we live on. But how did this relatively new holiday come to be?


In the early 1960s, Americans began to become more aware of environmental damage than they ever had before. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring exposed the dangers of pesticides in the American countryside.


In 1969, a fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River showed the complications with the disposing of chemical waste. Before the 1960s environmental issues were not at the forefront of American politics, resulting in a lack of laws to prevent extreme pollution.


According to History.com, in 1962 United States Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, sought to convince political leaders that the planet was in danger. Senator Nelson was inspired by anti-Vietnam war “teach-ins” that were being held in colleges. 


Senator Nelson announced his idea for a holiday to bring attention to environmental issues at a conference in Seattle in 1969. He then convinced conservative Congressman Pete McCloskey and Denis Hayes, a young activist, to join his team and help make his vision a reality.


According to EarthDay.org, the group chose April 22, a date that fell in between Spring Break and final exams in order to get as much student participation as possible, to host college teach-ins. However, Hayes saw the potential to inspire all Americans and after changing the name to “Earth Day” it became a national phenomenon. 


The first national celebration of Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970, where millions of Americans held rallies in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. This first Earth Day brought about a start to the “environmental decade” as 25% of Americans polled in 1971 said protecting the environment was an important goal.


This first earth day also led to governmental change, with the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the creation of laws such as the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act. 


The holiday was first celebrated globally in 1990, as Dennis Hayes organized a new global campaign that mobilized 200 million people in 141 countries. Earth Day 1990 led to the United Nations Earth Summit in 1992 and it led to Senator Nelson being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work as founder of Earth Day.


Since its first celebration in 1970, Earth Day continues to be celebrated every year with people around the world using the holiday as an opportunity to advocate for environmental issues like climate change and global warming. Although no big rallies or protests can be held this year in the wake of the coronavirus, people are still making sure their voices are heard in order to protect this planet.