Earth Day Began as Protest

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

In 1970 people knew how to protest. April 22 of that year was a day when 20 million Americans took to the streets. There were boisterous protests, rallies, fundraisers, speeches, concerts and nature walks. But these crusaders weren’t concerned with a virus or even a war. They were standing up, speaking up, marching and singing for the planet. This was the very first official Earth Day.

Earth Day has an interesting history. It didn’t really happen by accident or happenstance. The date was specifically selected to mobilize college students and was the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin. Nelson had witnessed the aftermath of a massive oil spill in 1969 that nearly destroyed the coast of Santa Barbara, CA and killed at least 3,700 birds although scientists estimated the number to much higher at somewhere around 9,000. His experience prompted him toward a conservation effort that would eventually become an international movement.

Nelson knew the power and verve that college students could bring to a cause after witnessing the Vietnam era demonstrations and his quest to launch a fledgling holiday would depend on that kind of energy. So, he enlisted Harvard University graduate student, Dennis Hayes as a national coordinator. Hayes was instrumental not only in recruiting 85 dedicated environmental activists, but also choosing a date that fell strategically between Spring Break and final exams on most college campuses.

Union Square in New York saw twenty-thousand people pack in to see Paul Newman and listen to a speech by Mayor John Lindsay, who arrived by electric bus. Across the nation people turned out in droves to events planned on 15,000 college campuses and in 10,000 schools. There were lots of community cleanups and some curious ceremonies and events. In Florida, students at a technical university held a mock trial for Chevrolet and sentenced it to death by destroying it with sledgehammers.

Despite the typical and familiar challenges from conservative groups, Earth Day 1970 was a stunning success. And even though the nation woke up the next day to a world that wasn’t any cleaner, the events sparked an unprecedented slate of environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act- all passed within a decade of the that April day.

Today, fifty years after what some considered to be so radical, Earth Day is the largest environmental movement in the world. It is observed in 192 countries and celebrated by more than a billion people. The theme for Earth Day 2020 is Climate Action and, while many of the events and educational opportunities have been converted to virtual participation due to COVID-19, there is still plenty of opportunity to take part. The official Earth Day website offers a variety of information and media including hundreds of digital events in multiple languages.

Happy Birthday Earth Day!

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