The Fascinating History Behind Why We Celebrate Earth Day

Happy #EarthDay50!

crowds gathered in a park with Earth Day flags and banners
The first Earth Day on April 20, 1970 in New York, New York. Photo: Santi Visalli/Getty

As the world celebrates Earth Day on April 22, many may not know how the holiday came about, or that 2020 is the 50th anniversary of the holiday.

Fifty years ago, a senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, launched a national effort in 1970 and called it, of course, “Earth Day.” That year, communities around the country hosted “teach-ins,” rallies, and marches about man’s environmental impact that some say attracted 20 million people. (Although, according to the Gaylord Nelson Collection at the University of Wisconsin, the real number was likely much smaller.)

Senator Gaylord Nelson
Senator Gaylord Nelson. CQ Archive/Getty

“Our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings and all other living creatures,” Nelson told an audience in Milwaukee the night before the first Earth Day, according to Milwaukee Magazine. “Our goal is a decent environment in its broadest and deepest sense.”

When he joined the Senate in the ‘60s, Nelson was known as an “environmental senator” and championed causes like conservation. But after a major oil spill in 1969, Nelson wanted to create a community-based movement to get people involved.

What was unique about Nelson’s vision was that it was led with bipartisan support and focused on encouraging youth voices. Earth Day events sprung up around the country to raise awareness about man’s environmental impact, which quickly led to changes in legislation. Within a few months at that very first Earth Day, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were adopted. Later that year, President Richard Nixon signed legislation that created the Environmental Protection Agency.

It took a few more years for the concept of Earth Day to spread outside of U.S. borders. Canada didn’t celebrate its first Earth Day until 1980, according to The Weather Channel. But by 1990, more than 140 countries around the world consider man’s environmental impact on Earth Day.

The reason we celebrate Earth Day on April 22 is because it fell halfway between spring break and final exams for students in 1970. (Students were the main demographic targeted for the environmental program.)

The public first heard about Earth Day from a full-page ad that ran in the New York Times on Jan. 18, 1970. The ad proclaimed Earth Day as a “day to re-examine the ethic of individual progress at mankind’s expense” and a “day to challenge the corporate and governmental leaders who promise change but who short change the necessary programs.”

To celebrate 50 years of Earth Day, not only is #EarthDay50 trending on Twitter but, Nelson’s daughter, Tia, released a short film honoring the first Earth Day efforts and considering how to make the day continue its environmental impact into the future.

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