Earth Day Celebrates 50 Years: a Walk Through History
Since its birth in 1970, Earth Day has become a worldwide movement to garner more attention for the environment, its resources and its species. While the movement has evolved over the years, its ultimate call to action has only gotten louder.
- By Amanda Smiley
- Apr 22, 2020
Every year on April 22, Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement from 1970. This year, the movement celebrates 50 years after a half-of-a-century of mobilization for the planet and its inhabitants.
Humans’ consumption, activities, habits and awareness of the environment have had drastic shifts over the decades, especially within the last century. In the decades and years leading up to the first Earth Day, Americans especially were going about daily life with little to no awareness of their environment impacts.
Americans consumed huge amounts of leaded gas for their cars, industry and corporations bellowed smoke and other pollutants with almost no rules or regulations to follow, air pollution was simply a way of life and a “smell of prosperity.”
In the middle of the 20th century, some voices of environmentalism grew louder. Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring—published in 1962—became one of the most popular books of the time. It sold more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries as it raised public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and the links between pollution and public health.
The original broadcast of the CBS News Special Report with Walker Cronkite about the first Earth Day in 1970 can be found on YouTube:
The Earth Day movement quickly involved the younger generations, students and politicians alike. Many demonstrations and protests about the planet infused other conversations about anti-war sentiments, too. The 1970s quickly became a decade or two of resounding calls for better water pollution control, air pollution efforts, acid rain awareness, species protection, transportation renovation and much more.
A number of officials including Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin recruited Denis Hayes, a young activist, to organize campus tech-ins and media efforts to publicize the young, student populations rallying for environmental change. Denis and his team chose April 22 to maximize the greatest student organization.
Recognizing the movement’s potential to inspire all Americans, Hayes then built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the nation, and soon the effort became a wide range of organizations, faith groups and others. They changed the name to Earth Day—a fitting and attention-grabbing name that caught fire across America.
According to the Earth Day website, the first Earth Day inspire nearly 20 million Americans—about 10 percent of the population of the U.S. at the time—to take to the streets, the parks, the auditoriums and the media to demonstrate against the impacts of nearly 150 years of industrial development which had left the Earth in bad shape.
By the end of 1970, a number of environmental-related groups, organizations and bills existed including the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of other first of their kind environmental laws, including the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Clean Air Act. Two years later, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. A year after that, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act and soon after the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.
By 1990, just two decades after its birth, Earth Day had become a global movement. Hayes and his team mobilized 200 million people in 141 countries and lifted environmental issues to the front stage. This year’s Earth Day paid particular attention to worldwide recycling efforts and Earth Summits.
With the turn of the century in 2000, Earth Day’s efforts continued to push for global solutions. This time, Hayes and his team began pushing for clean energy. Nearly 5,000 environmental groups in 184 countries reached hundreds of millions of people with one key helper: the internet.
The new century meant new technological tools for spreading information and spreading awareness, and the World Wide Web became a perfect way to reach people from the Americas to Africa to Australia to Russia in a united effort for the planet.
In 2010, Earth Day had a tougher fight than it had had in the past. The movement faced many more climate change deniers than it did in its early stages, and its pushes toward cleaner energy and policy reform was met with climate change skeptics, well-funded oil lobbyists, reticent politicians, a disinterested public, an increase in global population and consumption and a divided environmental community.
Still, the movement’s believers grew in number, engaging nearly 1 billion people every year.
Today, Earth Day is “widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world.” The fight for a clean environment continues to press on with urgency, and the pressing reality of climate change is a constant topic of conversation.
Still, as more individuals begin to listen to the call for action, young generations continue to be the driver of the force. People like Greta Thunberg (TIME’s Person of the Year for 2019) have shown incredible global impacts, and the use of digital and social platforms have given people access into climate change discussions like never before. Companies are beginning to rethink their supply chains and resource systems to produce more environmentally conscious products. Individuals are finding ways to amplify their impacts like taking on plant-based diets, buying sustainably sourced clothing and supporting local farmers. Politicians are speaking with urgency.
While the need for action is more dire than ever, the Earth Day movement is as large as ever. Now is the time to realize the power in ourselves and the power in one another.