How Did That Start: Earth Day

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[Earth Day was created] to inspire a public demonstration so big it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and force the environmental issue onto the national political agenda
-Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) 1970


For many people Earth Day is a chance to think about what being mindful of the how the things that they do impacts the Earth as well as giving them a chance to try and lessen their impact on the environment. During this time several organizations and government agencies promote events around Earth Day, including right here Prairie State College, where during the month of April, you can always find a Sustainability Event to attend. But this begs the question … How Did Earth Day Start?

Although Earth Day has an actual origin date (April 22, 1970), several contributing factors led to its actual start. In the 1960s, technology in the United States had increased the amount of media coverage which the average citizen had access to. Because of this, events such as the Santa Barbara Oil Spill and the Cuyahoga River Blaze now became visible and the  human impact on the environment could be easily seen by any person. Also by the 1970s, activists such as Rachel Carson had published her landmark book Silent Spring and Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall had published The Quiet Crisis. Additionally, by this time Congress had enacted the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission and President Kennedy had taken his Natural Resources Tour. So, rather than a starting point of an the environmental movement in the United States, the beginnings of Earth Day represented the moment in time when environmentalism entered the mainstream.

Having spoken on environmental issues … during the twelve years before Earth Day, I knew the public was far ahead of the political establishment in its concern for what was happening to the environment. The signs of degradation were everywhere – polluted rivers, lakes, beaches, oceans, and air.”
-Senator Nelson

The actual celebration of Earth Day began with Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wi) who, inspired by the anti-Vietnam demonstrations and “teach-ins” decided that it would beneficial to the public to set a large-scale teach-in to educate the general public about the importance of environmental issues. He chose the date, April 22nd, to coincide with Arbor Day, and so that it would not interfere with Finals Week at college campuses. Although the day was set up by Nelson along with Republican Representative Paul McCloskey, it was really the efforts of Denis Hayes, an environmentalist student who together with the group Environmental Action worked, to coordinate the day.

Earth Day 1970 made it clear that we could summon the public support, the energy, and commitment to save our environment. And while the struggle is far from over, we have made substantial progress.”
-Senator Nelson

During the first Earth Day, nearly two thousand colleges and universities, ten thousand high schools, and grade school and several thousand communities participated. The estimated total number of Americans that were actively engaged in the day ranged in the 20 millions. Throughout cities such as New York, San Fransisco and Chicago, large crowds gathered to hear speeches from politicians, poets and ecologists. Students in Washington D.C. attended a concert held in front of the Washington Monument. Colleges and Universities held programs such as “wreck-ins” or tree planting. The University of Wisconsin, alone, held fifty-eight separate programs for the event and Senator Thomas McIntrye (D-NH) set the record for most speeches given in a day with 14.

Since the 1970s, the celebration of Earth Day has embedded and flowed, depending on the administration in power. But as you sit back on the 45th anniversary of its beginning, think about what the importance of the day means to yourself, and how you can better help the only planet we have. With that in mind, stop down at the library this month and check out some of these great titles we have on display.

Further Resources