Earth Day, April 22, was founded in 1970 by Gaylord Nelson, a United States Senator from Wisconsin. Senator Nelson developed the idea for a national day to focus on the environment after the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. He wanted the public to participate in a day of study (teach-in) and demonstrations on behalf of the environment. Overwhelmed by the positive response to his idea, he established an independent non-profit office in Washington, DC called Environmental Teach-In, Inc. and enlisted Denis Hayes, a graduate student and anti-Vietnam War activist at Harvard University’s Law School, to promote the day nationwide. Denis then enlisted help from other classmates—Andrew Garling, Stephen Cotton, Arturo Sandoval, Bryce Hamilton and Barbara Reid—to coordinate and manage different regions or groups, such as the northeast, the Midwest, the media campaign, and high school students. The team took the idea to different cities and towns across the U.S. using issues such as protection of wilderness and endangered species as well as air and water pollution to garner interest from other activists. Word spread as Denis’ team produced resource packets, project ideas, and posters; encouraged citizens to write to their legislators about the environment; and published a full-page advertisement in the New York Times on January 18, 1970. The date, April 22, was allegedly chosen so as not to conflict with religious holidays, spring break, or final exams.
The first Earth Day was focused on efforts in the U.S. It is estimated that 20 million people from all demographic groups and political parties as well as elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and communities participated to bring attention to environmental issues nationwide. Images can be found here. Famous people, including folk singer and activist Pete Seeger and actors Paul Newman and Ali McGraw, participated in events in Washington, DC and New York City.
The establishment of Earth Day reportedly helped spur the U.S. Congress and President Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency in July 1970 and to enact environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Earth Day was later recognized internationally in 1990. Today, Earth Day is celebrated on April 22 by more than 1 billion people in 192 countries.
What can you do to celebrate Earth Day?
- Use a recyclable water bottle or coffee mug
- Build a birdhouse
- Take a bike ride
- Hike or walk
- Use recyclable grocery bags, not plastic ones
- Recycle your paper and cardboard
- Remember to turn off lights that you’re not using
- Switch to LED lightbulbs
- Repair your leaky faucet
- Pick up trash at a local park, neighborhood, or beach
- Plant a tree or buy a tree certificate (such as through Friends of Trees or a living tribute)
- Carpool to work or other activities
- Switch to paperless bills and invoices
- Compost (check out this great article from eartheasy for how to do so)
- Start a bee farm (first, check with your local authorities to see if you have permission, and then check out this great article from Countryside Network for how to start your farm)
- Plant a garden
- “Adopt” an animal at a wildlife preserve (such as through the World Wildlife Fund)
The possibilities are endless! How are you going to celebrate this year?