Special Occasions

Published on April 21st, 2009 | by Guest Contributor


The First Earth Day – Birth of the Modern Environmental Movement

Earth awareness has swept the face of the globe in recent years. However, American environmentalism was put on the map almost four decades ago, after the first ever Earth Day. Each year on April 22nd, people around the world rally to support the cause of the environment.

Earth Day Network

Earth Day Network

The first Earth Day took place on April 22nd, 1970 when U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, organized a nationwide grassroots protest bringing environmentalism to the forefront of the nation’s socio-political agenda. Twenty million Americans participated in the event, calling for a healthy and sustainable planet. Earth Day marked the birth of the modern environmental movement.

Senator Nelson, a long time environmental activist, organized the celebration specifically to demonstrate popular political support for an environmental agenda. He modeled the event on the highly effective Vietnam War protests of the time.

The date was chosen to could maximize participation on college campuses. It was an ideal date because it did not fall during exams or spring breaks, it did not conflict with religious holidays such as Easter or Passover, and it was late enough in spring to have decent weather. Additionally, a mid week date increased the likelihood that students would be in class: Senator Nelson had conceived the event as an “environmental teach-in.”

The date also happened to be Lenin’s 100th birthday.  Many believe that this was not purely coincidental. However, when asked, Nelson explained,  “On any given day, a lot of both good and bad people were born. A person many consider the world’s first environmentalist, Saint Francis of Assisi, was born on April 22. So was Queen Isabella.”

Growing populations depletes the Earth’s natural resources

Even in the late sixties, it was a well-recognized fact that expanding populations was steadily depleting the earth’s natural resources. The first Earth Day was planned during a period of increased concern about overpopulation, and Nelson viewed the stabilization of the nation’s population as an important aspect of environmentalism.

Five months before the first April 22 Earth Day, The New York Times featured an article reporting on the rising hysteria of students over the earth’s natural resources:

“Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam…a national day of observance of environmental problems…is being planned for next spring…when a nationwide environmental ‘teach-in’…coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned….”

Bypassing the political process to establish environmental legislation

Senator Nelson selected Denis Hayes, a Harvard University graduate student, to be the national coordinator of Earth Day activities. Hayes went about his mission in a manner that would bypass the traditional political process.

He organized massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Smaller activist groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife, all began to realize the common values that they shared.

The event was a resounding success thanks to spontaneous response at the grassroots level. It resulted in participants in two thousand colleges and universities, about ten thousand primary and secondary schools, and hundreds of communities across the United States.

Senate Nelson directly credited the first Earth Day with persuading U.S. politicians that environmental legislation had a substantial, lasting constituency. Many important laws were passed by the Congress in the wake of the 1970 Earth Day, including the Clean Air Act, and the creation in the United States of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Earth Day Network, a leading organizer of Earth Day around the world

The organizers of the first Earth Day event subsequently founded the Earth Day Network, a non-profit organization that promotes environmental citizenship and year round progressive action worldwide. The organization rallies Earth Day events around the world each year, calling for activists to connect and interact on change in local, national, and global policies.

Today, Earth Day is the only event celebrated simultaneously around the globe by people of all backgrounds, faiths and nationalities. More than a half billion people now participate in Earth Day Network campaigns every year.

Learn more about the EarthDay network at www.earthday.net

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