Earth Day History
Earth Day sprang to life at a time when Americans were concerned about their environment. The publication of Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962 raised public awareness of the links between pollution and public health. People were starting to think about environmental changes around them.
In 1969, common industrial practices caused Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River to catch on fire. Also in 1969, Santa Barbara, California experienced a massive oil spill. These kinds of environmental disturbances were gaining worried attention. Groups were beginning to fight against oil spills, toxic dumps, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife.
At the same time, college campuses around the United States were holding anti-Vietnam War “teach-ins”. Americans were experiencing a world of threats. As a result, they were developing a unified voice through anti-war protests.
Public consciousness of environmental issues, coupled with a public ready for activism, set the stage for the first Earth Day. U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, was inspired by the energy of anti-war teach-ins and saw an opportunity to create a grassroots environmental demonstration. Nelson wanted to bring the idea of protecting the planet’s natural resources to a national political level. Nelson announced the Earth Day concept at a conference in Seattle in the fall of 1969 and invited the entire nation to get involved. It worked! The American people finally had a forum to express its concern for what was happening to the land, lakes, sea and air. In 1970, because of grassroots efforts, 20 million demonstrators united on the issue of protecting the environment.
Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment where young and old, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat came together to stand up for the environment. Those united voices led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.
What started as an exercise in local civic engagement has turned into a global movement. Today, people all over the world recognize and celebrate Earth Day. People identify their own local environmental needs and do something about it, and that’s what makes Earth Day so special; anyone can make a difference.