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Earth Day was founded in the United States on April 22, 1970, with the mission to increase public awareness of environmental concerns. Senator Gaylord Nelson, D-Wi., founded Earth Day to influence Americans and government officials to invest in environmental laws.

Senator Gaylord Nelson – The SJSU Alumni Who Created Earth Day

Senator Nelson speaking on his Outdoor Recreation Action Program. Image from http://www.nelsonearthday.net/nelson/

Senator Gaylord Nelson became the 20th century’s lead advocate for environmental protection. Although Nelson is a Wisconsin native and attended law school in that state, the Senator earned a bachelor’s degree in political science here at San Jose State University, once known as San Jose State College.

Elected as a Wisconsin Senator in 1962, Nelson sponsored environmental legislation such as the Environmental Protection Act (EPA). EPA promotes the management and use of the environment through legislative action.

The Inspiration Behind It

Image from the New York Times of the first Earth Day

Before the environmental movement accelerated, the impact of the industrial revolution (1760- 1820) allowed factories to release toxic waste into the air without any repercussions. The Clean Air Act and other environmental protection laws were not founded until after Earth Day was created.

Around this time, student-led anti-war efforts were held on many college campuses. Senator Nelson, inspired by these protests, aimed to receive the same kind of engagement and attention for environmental advocacy.

The Bipartisan Support

Without bipartisan support, Nelson’s idea could not go far. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill caught much of the country’s attention to environmental issues at the time. The first Earth Day had over 20 million people in attendance and led to protests all over the countries from both sides of the political spectrum.

Nelson’s Legacy

Climate Change Activists in Philadelphia, PA. Image from https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/04/earth-day-march-for-science-unprecedented

As of 1990, Earth Day is globally recognized and celebrated in countries all over the world. On April 22, 2022, Earth Day will be celebrated for a consecutive 51 years.

How are you celebrating Earth Day? Tell us by tagging us on Instagram @HerCampusSJSU!

Sophomore & political science major at San Jose State University
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