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The founding of Earth Day in which the environmental movement highlights the need for worldwide conversation and ecological education came about with the publishing of a bestselling book in the 1960s and the vision of a U.S. senator.

In the decades leading up to the first Earth Day, Americans were consuming a great deal of leaded gas through energy-wasting automobiles, and companies put smoke and sludge out into the air and water without any fear of retaliation from government officials, according to Air pollution was commonplace and accepted as a byproduct of economic progress.

However, the approach to addressing environmental issues increased its urgency significantly with the publication of Rachel Carson’s bestselling New York Times book “Silent Spring” in 1962. The book documented the harm caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides detrimental to humans in the ecosystem. Carson accused the chemical industry of spreading mistruths and elected officials of accepting the industry’s marketing claims without inquiry. The book was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, but it managed to sell 500,000 copies in 24 countries. The book has been credited for raising public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and the close ties between pollution and public health. reported in 2006 that “Silent Spring” was named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by the editors of “Discover” magazine.

With the popularity of “Silent Spring,” progressive U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), expressed his concern for national environmental degradation. Nelson had distinguished himself in the Senate as a champion of civil rights, women’s rights and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s programs to fight poverty. 

However, when a massive oil spill occurred in Santa Barbara, California in 1969, Nelson decided to take his activism to another level. Observing the growing potency of the anti-Vietnam War movement—Nelson opposed the U.S.’s role in the conflict—he wanted to drum up the same energy and passion for cleaning up the nation’s water and air.

Nelson, along with U.S. Rep. Peter McCloskey ( R-Calif.) recruited a young activist, Denis Hayes, to organize teach-ins on college campuses on April 22, a weekday between Spring Break and final examination periods. Hayes managed to build a national staff to promote the teach-ins. Soon, other organizations and faith groups joined in. The decision was made to rename the event Earth Day, which immediately caught people’s attention, reported. The first recognized Earth Day in 1970 had 20 million Americans advocating for a safe environment.

Earth Day 1970 fueled the political activism of environmentally conscious Americans. By the end of that year, President Richard Nixon and Congressional legislators from both parties had created the EPA and passed the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Clean Air Act. In the following years, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act passed Congress and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act underwent a major revision.

Nelson lost reelection in 1980 and became counselor of The Wilderness Society afterward. President Bill Clinton awarded Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1995 due to his environmental work and founding Earth Day.

In the years leading up to the 1990s, Hayes worked with a group of environmental leaders to make Earth Day a global event. In 1992, Earth Day activism spurred the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Earth Day 2000 saw Hayes organize a worldwide focus on global warming and a push for clean energy. Highlights of Earth Day 2000 had international and local activists using the Internet to organize activities around the world, while featuring a drum chain that traveled from village to village in Gabon on the African continent.

Today, Earth Day is recognized in 193 countries with more than one billion people participating in activities for a cleaner planet and combating climate change.

James Wright Jr. is the D.C. political reporter for the Washington Informer Newspaper. He has worked for the Washington AFRO-American Newspaper as a reporter, city editor and freelance writer and The Washington...

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