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  • Writer's pictureKatie Flynn

51 Years Of Earth Days

Celebrating the Birth of The Modern Environmental Movement

Each year on April 22, people around the world come together to celebrate Earth Day and take action against climate change. A lot has changed since the first one was held in 1970. Let's take a look back at how far we've come since!

How'd It All Begin?

Prior to Earth Day 1970, Americans and people all around the world were consuming large amounts of fossil fuels through incredibly inefficient vehicles. Most remained oblivious to any environmental impact because of a huge lack of education. But, in 1962, Rachel Carson wrote her New York Times bestseller, Silent Spring, and sold over 500,000 copies around the world, catapulting the impact of pollution on living organisms to the forefront of people's minds.

Then, in 1969, after witnessing the tragedy of the massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California alongside the rest of the world, Senator Gaylord Nelson decided to capture the energy of the anti-war movement and put it behind the emerging environmental movement. He proposed the idea for a teach-in on college campuses to the national media and recruited conservation-minded, Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey to serve as his co-chair.

The two of them then recruited Denis Hayes, a young activist, to organize the teach-ins. They chose April 22nd because it fell between Spring Break and Final Exams, a time they believed would encourage the highest level of student participation.

After realizing its potential to inspire all Americans, Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the country. They called it Earth Day, and the idea caught like wildfire. That first year, they inspired 20 million Americans to take to the streets protesting against the impacts of 150 years of industrial development.

Groups that had been working separately for years to combat climate change came together to share the common messaging of Earth Day and thousands of universities and colleges held protests. There were rallies from coast to coast and we achieved a rare political alignment.

By the end of 1970, the very first Earth Day had resulted in the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Other groundbreaking policies such as the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act!

When Did It Go International?

In 1990! A group of environmentalists approached Denis Hayes with ideas to take Earth Day global. This time, they successfully mobilized over 200 million people across 141 countries!

Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to conversations about environmentalism and recycling efforts around the world. It also led to the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Senator Nelson was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton for his role as an Earth Day founder.

As the new millennium approached, there was a record-breaking 5,000 organizations dispersed across 184 countries all spreading the message of Earth Day. Earth Day 2000 was the first to utilize the power of the internet to take environmentalism t new heights!

The Modern Earth Day

Earth Day 2010 saw some of the same patterns as the very first in 1970. The general public had once again become disinterested in climate change or environmental policies. A new wave of cynicism and climate change deniers had taken hold, however, Earth Day prevailed and began to establish Earth Day as a permanent and important fixture of action against climate change.

According to, Earth Day is recognized today as the largest secular observance in the world, bringing together over 1 billion people every year in a day of action to change human behavior and slow the impacts of climate change.

Many of those social and cultural environments of 1970 are making a return appearance as the sense of urgency to save our planet increases. A new generation of young people is feeling the pressure and frustration to fix the problems created by years of inaction and they're taking hold of the digital media to make their impact even greater.

In 2021, Earth Day evolved into a three-day-long event, starting on April 20, 2021. Which kicked off with virtual summits and seminars and ended with the Earth Day Network's second Earth Day Live virtual event!

Covid-19 has made the last two years of Earth Day's look a little different than previous years, however, we've all still managed to come together to celebrate our beautiful home. On there were over 1500 events registered around the world for people to attend virtually, or in person when safe!

It's more important now than ever to pay attention to the messages behind Earth Day. It's can't just be one day of the year, we have to make EVERY day Earth Day!

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