It’s common knowledge that Earth Day is observed annually on April 22 in order to celebrate the planet and educate people about the need for environmental protection. But how much do you know about Earth Day facts and history? Here, we’ll delve into the origins and evolution of this holiday, which date back to the late ‘60s/early ‘70s ecology movement. We’ll also discuss ideas for Earth Day activities for anyone who wants to do their part to preserve the planet’s beauty for future generations.
The History of Earth Day
The original founder of the Earth Day concept is the topic of some debate, but it sprang from the environmental issues of the late 1960s. Before the US Environmental Protection Agency was founded, Americans were driving V8 sedans that guzzled leaded gas, factories across the country were pumping toxic fumes into the atmosphere, and pollution of our air and water was simply a fact of life.
The counterculture movement that arose in response to the Vietnam War gave birth to a “new age” of spiritual, cultural, and ecological awakening. It was fueled by Rachel Carson’s best-seller Silent Spring, which pointed out the negative impacts of pesticides and urged humans to become responsible stewards of our planet. By 1969, two men had proposed different ways to turn this increasing environmental consciousness into action.
The first was peace activist John McConnell, who proposed a day to honor the Earth and the concept of peace at a 1969 UNESCO conference in San Francisco. His idea for a celebration to take place on the first day of spring in 1970 was sanctioned in a proclamation signed by United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, and dozens of other luminaries.
But Earth Day as we celebrate it today was founded by Gaylord Nelson, a US Senator from Wisconsin who also had a hand in creating the Appalachian Trail System and the Wilderness Act. Nelson, working in partnership with conservation-minded Republican congressman Pete McCloskey and national coordinator Denis Hayes, wanted to create a “National teach-in for the environment.” Around 20 million people gathered together for the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, protesting against environmental deterioration and showing their passion for a more healthy, sustainable planet.
10 Fascinating Earthing Day Facts
- The first Earth Day ultimately led to the creation of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.
- Earth Day went international in 1990, with 200 million people in 141 countries around the world giving environmental issues a global platform. This event helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
- Warner Bros Records released an Earth Day-themed song, “Tomorrow’s World,” in 1990. Featuring country music icons such as Kix Brooks (of Brooks & Dunn), Pam Tillis, Lynn Anderson, Vince Gill, and Highway 101, the tune reached #74 on the Hot Country Songs chart.
- The Earth Day 20 International Peace Climb of Mt. Everest marked the first time mountaineers from the United States, Soviet Union, and China had ever roped together to climb a mountain.
- New Hampshire organizers Nelson and Bruce Anderson formed Earth Day USA in 1990. It was their efforts that turned Earth Day into an annual event, rather than one that only occurred once every 10 years.
- In 1995 President Bill Clinton awarded Gaylord Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest honor given to US civilians— for his role as the founder of Earth Day.
- Earth Day 2000 marked the first time organizers used the Internet as a primary tool, enlisting more than 5,000 environmental groups in a record 183 countries. Hundreds of millions of people around the world participated, with Leonardo DiCaprio serving as the official host.
- Earth Day 2010 drew over 250,000 people to the National Mall in DC for a Climate Rally. The Earth Day Network also launched “A Billion Acts of Green,” the world’s largest environmental service project, and a global tree-plating initiative, The Canopy Project.
- The Earth Day Network is currently the largest recruiter for the environmental movement in the world. The organization works with over 50,000 partners in 196 countries on projects that cover everything from environmental education and consumer campaigns to shaping public policy.
- To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020, EDN is launching an ambitious slate of initiatives designed to shape the future of environmentalism. Learn more details on their Countdown to 2020 page.
Earth Day 2017
The theme for this year’s Earth Day is Environmental & Climate Literacy. Never before has there been a greater need for concerned citizens to stand up against climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and wildlife extinction. There are massive budget cuts planned for the EPA (by around 31%) and climate change programs across the Interior Department, NOAA, NASA, and State Department. There are plans to roll back vital environmental regulations, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and more.
In the interest of building “a global citizenry knowledgeable in environmental science and fluent in local and global ecological issues,” the Earth Day Network is launching toolkits to give schools, colleges, and community groups across the world the resources to hold their own teach-ins for Environmental and Climate Literacy.
So what can you do to help? EDN suggests all concerned citizens should urge their legislators to support the teaching of environmental and climate literacy in K-12 schools. They’re also working with March For Science to co-organize an Earth Day rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC, which will include speeches, lessons from scientists and civic organizers, and a march through the streets. If you can’t make it to DC, you can participate in one of the 480 satellite marches taking place all around the world.
But perhaps the most important thing we can do is to learn simple tips for going green that we can easily implement in our daily lives to lessen our negative impact on the planet. Individually these small gestures may not seem to make much of a difference. But collectively we can make a huge difference if we remember to be conscious of the environment—not just on Earth Day, but every day!
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.