Earth Day is April 22 and will be the 52nd observance of a celebration that began out of the 1960s counterculture movement.
Earth Day was founded in 1970 as a day of education about environmental issues but the seed for the movement was planted in the preceding decade. Rachel Carson’s bestseller Silent Spring warned of the adverse effects of pesticides to the environment and then in 1969 a fire on Cleveland’s Guyahoga River revealed the dangers of chemical waste disposal. The two events helped propel environmental closer to the forefront in the political scene.
Wisconsin Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson developed the idea for Earth Day after being inspired by the anti-Vietnam War “teach-ins” taking place on college campuses across the country. Nelson envisioned a large-scale grassroots environmental demonstration “to shake up the political establishment and force the issue onto the national agenda.”
He announced the Earth Day concept at a conference in Seattle in the fall of 1969 and invited the entire nation to get involved.
The concept drew attention from coast to coast and a young activist, Denis Hayes, was selected as Earth Day’s national coordinator. Hayes worked with student volunteers and members of Nelson’s senate office to organize the project.
According to Nelson, “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.”
On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was held with rallies in many of the nation’s larger cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Thousands of people gathered in the nation’s capital to hear speeches from notable celebrities such as singer Pete Seegars and congress went into recess to allow members to speak to their constituents. Mayor John Lindsey of New York City closed off a portion of Fifth Avenue to traffic and spoke at a rally in Union Square. Actors Paul Newman and Ali McGraw also spoke at the New York rally.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Public opinion polls indicate that a permanent change in national priorities followed Earth Day 1970. When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment to be an important goal, a 2,500 percent increase over 1969.”
The annual observance is now a global celebration that is sometimes extended into Earth Week, a full seven days of events focused on green living and confronting the climate crisis.