A Short History of Earth Day

When I think of Earth Day, I remember doing elementary-school arts & crafts with recycled materials or I think of the reduce, reuse, recycle song (“The Three R’s”) Mitchell Musso sang on Disney Channel. I have come to associate it with childhood memories—a frivolous holiday for making crafts and going outside. However, I have found out that Earth Day has a rich history that is deeply tied with the student protest movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

 

boats with steam Photo by Chris Le Boutillier from Unsplash

Before 1970, there were virtually no environmental restrictions on factories or the products they created. Large factories would dump toxic waste in any nearby water source and pump pollutants into the air. These factories—along with flashy cars that drank up loads of gasoline—were considered signs of a productive society.

There were people fighting back against the detrimental effects of this lifestyle to the environment, but a few key events spurred political action and national attention. Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring in 1962 exposed the way pesticides were ravaging against rural agriculture, raising concerns for how this affected public health. In 1969, a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California raised national concern about water pollution.

Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin, inspired by the influence of student protest during the antiwar movement, decided to take a page out of the students’ book to begin to address this degradation on a national scale. In 1970, he planned to host a teach-in on college campuses around the country, and invited conservative Congressman Pete McCloskey and activist Denis Hayes to help him organize. They decided to host this event on April 22 because it fell between spring break and final exams for college students.

But Senator Nelson did not stop his recruitment at the student level. He organized an 85-person staff and a wide range of organizations to promote the teach-ins on a national level. Senator Nelson also changed the name of the event to Earth Day, which immediately attracted media attention and caught on across the country.

When April 22, 1970 arrived, 20 million Americans came out to college campuses, cities, and towns to protest over a century of environmental degradation and its danger to public health. This event led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Education Act. Its repercussions would also be felt in the years to come, leading to the passage of the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

Earth Day 1970 directly resulted in laws and agencies that protect the health of millions of people and push us toward a more nurturing relationship with the environment. It united hundreds of organizations working individually against environmental degradation and allowed them to create a concerted national effort. Not only that, it encouraged millions of people who were previously not involved in the movement to come out and put pressure on lawmakers to enact real change.

Without Earth Day 1970, who knows if we would have all of the environmental protections we do today. While we still have a long way to go toward a healthy relationship with Earth, this history shows that we can get there through the power of unity and protest. 

make earth great again Photo by Christian Lue from Unsplash

I encourage you to celebrate this Earth Day by learning more about how to get involved and how you can help the environment in small ways. Read my fellow Her Campus writer’s article on reusable products here, and check out the sources below!

Sources & More Information:

  1. The History of Earth Day

  2. Earth Day 2021

  3. Earth Day ‘70: What It Meant

  4. EPA History: Earth Day

  5. The Spirit of the First Earth Day

 

How to Get Involved:

  1. Take Action 

  2. Virginia Student Environmental Coalition Charlottesville (VSEC)

  3. 7 Awesome Hands-On Ways You Can Volunteer to Help the Environment