What is Earth Day?

Nathan Montoya, Sandscript Author

Each year on April 22, we celebrate Earth Day, and we celebrate it to promote protecting the planet from things such as pollution and deforestation. Engaging in activities like planting trees, or picking up trash to help make the world healthier.
The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970, because in the decades leading up to the first Earth Day, Americans were consuming large amounts of leaded gas through massive but inefficient automobiles that polluted the air. The smell of this air pollution was considered the smell of prosperity and until this point, America remained largely oblivious to environmental concerns and the ways in which pollution threatened human health. The stage for Earth Day was set with the publication of Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962. The book represented a watershed moment and sold more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries as it raised public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment, and the inextricable links between pollution and public health.
The idea for the first Earth Day came from a junior senator, Gaylord Nelson, from Wisconsin. Nelson was concerned about the deteriorating environment of the US. In January 1969, he and many others witnessed a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. The group was inspired by a student-led anti-war movement that attempted to infuse the energy of the student anti-war protest with the growing public awareness about air and water pollution. Senator Nelson announced the idea and persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair. They then recruited Denis Hayes, a young activist, so he could help organize the campus teach-ins. They chose April 22, a weekday falling between Spring Break and Final Exams, to make sure they could maximize student participation.
Recognizing that it had the potential to inspire all Americans, Hayes built a national staff of 85 people to promote events across the land, and the effort soon broadened to include a wide range of organizations, faith groups, and others. They changed the name to Earth Day, which then got national media attention, and caught on across the country. Earth Day inspired about twenty million Americans, 10% of the total population at that time, to take to the parks, the streets, and the auditoriums to demonstrate the impacts of 150 years of industrial development. This left a growing legacy of serious human health impacts.
In 1990, a group of environmental leaders approached Hayes to organize a major campaign for Earth Day to go global. The campaign mobilized about 200 million people in 141 countries bringing environmental issues to the world stage. Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide, and also prompted U.S. President Bill Clinton to award Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to civilians in the United States. Nelson received the award due to his role as Earth Day’s founder.
Today, Earth Day is widely recognized as a way to spread awareness about our climate, with more than a billion people every year taking action to change human behavior and create global, local, and national policy changes.