The first Earth Day in 1970 mobilized millions of Americans for the protection of the planet. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans — 10 percent of the U.S. population at the time — took to the streets, college campuses and hundreds of cities to protest environmental injustices and demand a new way forward for our planet.
Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, who served as a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin at the time, reportedly came up with the idea for a national day to focus on the environment after seeing first-hand the devastation caused by a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, Nelson used the fervor of civil rights and anti-war protests to engage with those interested in also protecting the water, air, and soil environments.
“Ecology is a big science, a big concept, not a cop-out. It is concerned with the total eco-system — not just with how we dispose of our tin cans, bottles and sewage. Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing that is not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit,” Nelson said during his Earth Day speech in 1970. “Environment is a problem perpetuated by the expenditure of $17 billion a year on the Vietnam War, instead of on our decaying, crowded, congested, polluted urban areas that are inhuman traps for millions of people.”
Nelson’s passion for improving the environment and raising awareness led to the passage of landmark environmental laws in the United States, including the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. Many countries soon adopted similar laws, and in 2016, the United Nations chose Earth Day as the day to sign the Paris Climate Agreement into force.
Today, one of the event’s organizers, Denis Hayes, said that despite the many advances, things have become even more critical.
“Despite that amazing success and decades of environmental progress, we find ourselves facing an even more dire, almost existential, set of global environmental challenges, from loss of biodiversity to climate change to plastic pollution, that call for action at all levels of government,” said Hayes, who serves as the Earth Day Network’s Board Chair Emeritus.
Earth Day History
1970 — The first Earth Day mobilizes 20 million Americans to call for increased protections for our planet.
1990 — Earth Day goes global, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries.
2000 — Earth Day leverages the power of digital media to build millions of local conversations across more than 180 countries.
2010 — Earth Day Network launches A Billion Acts of Green® and The Canopy Project. Earth Day 2010 engages 75,000 global partners in 192 countries.
2020 — Earth Day will mark 50 years with global activations that aim to mobilize a billion people worldwide for transformative action for our planet.