The History of Earth Day in the United States

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Every year on April 22nd, communities around the United States celebrate Earth. A variety of events and celebrations are held to bring awareness to protecting the environment and informing individuals how they can make a difference. The first celebration was in 1970, and has since been adopted by more than 193 countries. You might even find some communities dedicating an entire week or month to honoring the environment. As we approach Earth Day, we’re diving into the history of Earth Day in the United States.

Where It All Started

 Small environmentalist groups were already in action several years before the first Earth Day celebration took place. For example, Survival Project was an early environmental awareness event held at Northwestern University. Its goal was to project the importance of nature conservation, and inform the general public on how they could get involved. This was just one of the several early efforts to unite people around environmental awareness throughout the nation. These events, and later the establishment of Earth Day itself, came after a turbulent 1960s America, where the state of the environment was brought to the forefront. Rachel Carson’s hugely popular book Silent Spring is credited with much of this newfound awareness. She uncovered the horrible impacts of the careless use of pesticides, specifically DDT, was having on people and the planet. It was a monumental success and helped set off what would become the nationwide environmentalist movement.
In 1969, an oil drill accident off the coast of Santa Barbara, California shook the country. The impact was devastating: over 10,000 seabirds, dolphins, seals, and sea lions were killed because of the oil that spilled into the ecosystem surrounding the drill. The response was to establish environmental rules and regulations, educate people on how they impact their environment, and establish a day of the year that honors the planet. 

A march from the first Earth Day in 1970.Denis Hayes and Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin were key advocates of Earth Day after witnessing the aftermath of the spill. Nelson aimed to unite smaller environmentalist groups throughout the country into one massive coalition. He once remarked, “The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.” In the end, he was successful, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
At the one-year anniversary of the spill, Santa Barbara celebrated Environmental Rights Day. In the months leading up to the celebration, the organizers of the event, along with senators of California worked together to create the National Environmental Policy Act. It would be the first of many environmentally-based laws to arise in the coming years. Soon, Earth Day would grow to be the first celebration of its kind recognized by countries around the world. 

The Earliest Celebrations

 Over 2,000 colleges and universities, 10,000 primary schools, and hundreds of local communities celebrated the first Earth Day. In New York City, a group of students from Columbia University rented an office and began recruiting volunteers to promote a rally in honor of Earth. After their movement gained enough steam, Mayor Lindsay shut down fifth avenue to the event. It was a monumental success for those involved. Lindsay also made Central Park available for those coordinating and participating in the Earth Day march. The New York Times estimated there were 100,000 people in attendance throughout the day.
Twenty years later, over 200 million people were involved in the movement. By now, Earth Day activists had access to mass marketing techniques, and millions of dollars to spend on events and promotional materials. Without a doubt, Earth Day had reached an international stage. Two groups were established for this specific celebration: Earth Day 20 Foundation and Earth Day 1990. Senator Nelson was invited to be the honorary chairman for both groups. Earth Day 20 focused their attention on local communities, while Earth Day 1990 put more effort toward working with larger corporations. This same year, Warner Bros. Records released a song titled “Tomorrow’s World,” showing their support for the movement.

A poster from Earth Day 90.By 2000, Earth Day activists had the Internet at their disposal. Because of this, Kelly Evans, a political organizer, was able to garner the support of more than 5,000 environmentalist groups outside the United States, achieving a record of 183 involved countries. In 2017, the Earth Day Network hosted the most widespread environmental awareness effort in history. They created four toolkits to help educate and organize: Earth Day Action Toolkit: Educating and Activating Communities for Change, Environmental Teach-in Toolkit, Global Day of Conversation Toolkit for Local Governments, and MobilizeU: Campus Teach-in Toolkit. In this way, they were able to reach several sectors of the population, offering supplies and information they needed to get involved in the Earth Day festivities. This same year, Earth Day also partnered with the March for Science rally in the National Mall in Washington D.C. – the first march of its kind. 

Earth Day Today

Today, how Earth Day is celebrated across the United States varies greatly. More people might try to ride, walk or carpool to work and school, they might find time to volunteer with a local environmentalist cleanup group, or even do something as small as converting all their paper bills to e-bills. People are asked to be conscious about what lights they leave on in their home and repair the faucets that drip when the water isn’t running. These small changes can have enormous impacts.
Many communities offer Earth Day fairs complete with booths to educate and interact with the public. This is a fun and informative way to get involved in the community. Some cities hold marches while others hold rallies. Dedicated advocates for Earth Day have been known to dress in blues and greens or even go as far as to paint their bodies to resemble Planet Earth.
On the Earth Day Network’s website, they encourage people to raise awareness of the planet’s condition to help force through impactful legislation. Visitors are invited to learn about how giraffes, apes, and sea turtles are going extinct, how coral reefs are dying at an increasing rate, and how glaciers at the poles are melting faster than anticipated. Also, on the website, one can donate to plant a tree, pledge to eat less meat, stop the use of pesticides, and reduce their overall carbon footprint. There are countless opportunities for getting involved in Earth Day, both at a local level and nationally. As Carson once famously said, “In nature, nothing exists alone.”