The History of Earth Day

Updated: Nov 4, 2019


Growing up in the early 2000's, my version of Earth Day always involved snacks, music, and talk about the environment. We learned about endangered species, deforestation, and pollution, and how we could play our small part in helping the environment. But as a kid it was difficult to see outside of the narcissistic elements that contributed to pollution such as littering, over-consuming water by taking long showers, or consuming excess electricity by leaving the lights on when you weren’t in the room (these were all classic examples used in my elementary school on Earth Day). As a kid, it was nearly impossible to conceptualize the greater systemic issues that birthed our modern day environmental crisis, and to be honest, understanding these issues on a macro-scale is still as confusing and convoluted as ever. But in order to understand why the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day is so significant, we have to look back on the history of its creation. 


Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970 when 20 million Americans occupied public spaces in support of a movement for a more sustainable (what is sustainability?) future. But prior to Earth Day’s creation, the world was in a state of political unrest. After World War II, the Cold War began with the United States as a main player on the Democratic Capitalist side and the Soviet Union as a main player on the Socialist Communism side. The ongoing Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union caused massive international fear of nuclear weapons, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. During the same period in the United States, the Civil Rights Movement was peaking during the 1963 March on Washington when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. Additionally, in the same year President Kennedy was assassinated and President Lyndon B. Johnson took office. 

The United States soon became even further divided as intervention in the Vietnam War persisted under Johnson’s presidency. The war was one that was highly opposed by many young people, especially college students. The Civil Rights Movement resulted in the passage of the Equal Pay Act (1963) that prohibited gender-based wage discrimination, the Civil Rights Act (1964) that promised women and minorities equal opportunity, and the Voting Rights Act (1965) that removed voting restrictions on taxes and literacy. Young people saw that change was, in fact, possible and students organized massive anti-war protests on college campuses and in public spaces across the nation. The anti-war movement in the US soon gave way to the hippie era that encouraged the spread of “love not war.”

But underneath all this highly political front-page news was a growing concern for the environment. According to Earth Day Network, this concern was propelled into the mainstream by the release of the NY Times best selling book Silent Spring (1962) written by Rachel Carson. In her book, Carson detailed the dangerous and long lasting effects of the powerful pesticide DDT. Carson faced a great amount of backlash after boldly attacking the use of pesticide by the government and agricultural industry, but she did her homework and the facts in the book were air tight. Silent Spring successfully exposed the chemical and the flawed system surrounding it, bringing drastic public awareness to the issues of pollution and the need for conservation.

Another major event that brought environmentalism into the public eye was the 1968 Apollo 8 Moon Landing and the public release of “Earthrise,” the first color photo of the Earth. Stewart Brand, an influential writer and businessman in the 1960’s started a campaign in 1966 targeted at NASA to release a photo of the whole Earth to the public. Brand created and distributed buttons asking “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” for 25 cents each. He believed that these photos would have a significant influence on the public’s perception of the planet’s delicate ecosystems and he was right. 

In 1968 Brand utilized “Earthrise” as a powerful front cover visual for his publication the Whole Earth Catalog that he sold as an educational tool at a low cost across the nation. The catalog had a mass appeal to the counterculture as it consisted of an eclectic mixture of products and ideas that appealed to techies, hippies, designers, architects and environmentalists alike. 

However, it wasn’t until 1969 that people were fully convinced of the Earth’s vulnerability to pollution. The 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California was the largest oil spill to date, killing thousands of birds and marine life and receiving massive amounts of media attention. According to an NPR article by Jon Hamilton, the reason this spill became such a turning point for the environmental movement was due to the fact that many of the wealthy Republicans that helped elect Nixon in 1968 lived in Santa Barbara. 


Despite not being an environmentalist, Nixon knew that many Americans were not on his side on other issues surrounding the war and this was an issue for which he could gain public support. And so, to the dismay of many members of his presidential board he went ahead and signed legislation in favor of environmental conservation. The National Environmental Policy Act was enacted in early 1970 and signed into law later that year, stating that all federal agencies must go through a formal process before performing any acts that could have a significant effect on the environment. Despite the governmental reluctance to pass the law, it was an undeniable win. 


In the fall of 1969, after the conference for the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act, environmentalist and US Senator, Gaylord Nelson announced on national media that there would be a National Teach-In on the Environment in the spring of 1970. Teach-ins at universities were a popular way for grassroots organizations to spread the word of their cause during the anti-war movement in the 1960’s and proved to be a successful rallying call. Thus, Nelson began speaking at college campuses and forming his own grassroots organization called Environmental Teach-In Inc. The organization’s staff brought together civic leaders and activists in cities across the nation to organize the national event, and the title “teach-in” was soon nixed in place of the more memorable title “Earth Day.” 

"The First Earth Day in Philadelphia." (CBS News, 1970)


Finally on April 22nd, 1970, millions of Americans, despite political their political party were united on one issue, saving the environment. Earth Day 1970 gave rise to a wave of environmental protection laws starting with the National Environmental Policy Act becoming law, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which passed the Clean Air Act and later passed the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). 


Now, as we are approaching the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day coming up on April 22nd, 2020, we are hoping to make this year even bigger than 1970. Environmental issues have only increased and become more complex over the past 50 years and it is our duty to defend our future.



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