History of Earth Day in a Nutshell

History of Earth Day in a Nutshell
by Jaymi Heimbuch, San Francisco, California on 04.13.09earth-day-globe

For anyone in the green movement under 30 in the US, Earth Day has always just…been. It’s existed as a day when you head to the park or zoo with your parents for activities that have to do with recycling, gardening, and saving endangered animals. Or if you’re in high school or college, it’s the day you go plant trees or participate in a river clean-up and get some extra community service credits. But, how did it start? Really, it’s an example of grassroots environmentalism at its best.

In 1962, Senator Gaylord Nelson decided the environment needed to take a bigger priority in politics, so he convinced President Kennedy to do a national conservation tour. It was a five-day, eleven-state tour in September of ’63. And the result…a big, “So what?” from every other politician.

On to plan B.
Six years later, in 1969 when war protests were all the rage, Senator Nelson came up with the idea of holding a national protest against the destruction of the environment.

I was satisfied that if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the political agenda. It was a big gamble, but worth a try.

He was right. The event, held on April 22, 1970 and organized through grassroots, word-of-mouth methods, was a massive success with over 20 million people taking part across the nation. Imagine that…20 million people gathering around green, and all well before Twitter and its Twestivals, or Facebook and its Cause Badges.

Senator Nelson wrote:

Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.

Proof positive that the planet matters to people – a lot of people. That day marked the beginning of the green movement, and it’s grown steadily ever since. Twenty years later, on Earth Day 1990, 200 million people in 141 countries took part. In 2007, the largest Earth Day to date (despite pessimism about its impact), an estimated 1 billion people were out celebrating Earth Day around the world. And now, nearly 40 years later, how many will be involved? It’s still a holiday esteemed mainly by the United States – we’ll have to keep our ear to the ground this Earth Day to see just how many people participate.

But, why April 22?

There’s a few reasons for it. First, Senator Nelson thought the week of April 19-25 would be ideal for ensuring college students would take part, hoping to achieve an environmental teach-in during a time between exams, spring breaks, and religious holidays. Narrowing it down, he chose Wednesday, April 22. Very practical. (And no, the fact that it’s the birthday of Vladimir Lenin, St. Francis of Assisi, Julius Sterling Morgan, or the day after John Muir’s birthday had nothing to do with the choice of the date.)

If you think you know your Earth Day history, how about testing your knowledge with a quiz!


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