When and how did Earth Day get started?
—Laura Pfeiffer, N. Andover, MA
Senator Gaylord Nelson—who just passed away in July—founded the first Earth Day back in 1970 in order to celebrate and raise awareness about protecting the planet. With rivers catching fire from the dumping of combustible toxins, and cities buried under blankets of auto exhaust smog, Americans were becoming concerned about the state of their environment, but the politicians and media weren’t paying attention.
During the early 1960s, while serving as Governor of Wisconsin, Nelson began devoting a great deal of his time to lobbying Congress and the White House to pay more attention to environmental issues. In September 1963 he persuaded President John F. Kennedy to undertake a five-day, 11-state speaking tour, focusing on the environment. Despite Nelson”s success in getting the ear of President Kennedy, however, he was unable to drum up much political support or media coverage for conservation.
Searching for a way to put the environment in the spotlight, Nelson had an epiphany while on a speaking tour in the summer of 1969: He could borrow tactics used by the student demonstrators of the day—who were busy organizing large “teach-ins” at campuses around the country to protest the Viet Nam War—for his own cause, the environment. A few months later Nelson, who by then had moved from the Governor”s mansion to the Senate floor, announced that the first Earth Day would be held across the country the following April, and began making preparations out of his Washington, DC offices.
Within a few months, the idea gained momentum and Nelson hired Harvard Law student Denis Hayes and a team of impassioned young people—which later evolved into the non-profit Earth Day Network—to coordinate hundreds of events planned in local communities, schools and universities around the country. The hard work paid off, and some 20 million Americans participating in related events that first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.
Thanks to Nelson and other organizers, the environment had been put on the map as an issue important to many Americans. Within four years, Congress passed several landmark environmental laws—the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act—in response to public demand for cleaner lands and safer air and water. Also in response, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to oversee clean-ups and enforce the new laws. Indeed, the birth of Earth Day signaled the dawn of a new era of environmental responsibility within the U.S. and beyond.
Since the first Earth Day in 1970, millions of people have been coming together every April 22 to hold rallies and festivals, coordinate beach and park clean-ups, and educate their fellow citizens about the importance of safeguarding the environment. Schools, from elementary through college, have especially taken on Earth Day as a traditional time of year to focus students” attention on conservation and ecology.