HistoryScience

How did Earth Day begin?

Every year on April 22, people all over the world demonstrate their support for environmental stewardship and sustainability. Earth Day celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020, but here’s how the globally recognized holiday originated.

The early 20th century

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At the turn of the 20th century, the world entered the Age of Industrialization. Brand new industries emerged and used massive machines to create inexpensive yet strong building materials that would revolutionize the world. Although the Industrial Revolution helped businesses progress toward a more modernized future, it also introduced new sources of pollution and other environmental hazards.

At the time and for decades after, many people did not the consider environmental repercussions. Smokestacks billowing clouds of toxic plumes accompanied by noxious smells didn't seem to be much cause for concern. It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that people started to realize the effect that these new pollutants were having on the environment.

The environmental protection movement

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Early environmental protection efforts meant the preservation of natural resources for future development. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson established national parks and other monuments dedicated to preserving the land, but that did little to prevent harm from increasing levels of pollution.

Finally in the 1960s, people started to realize how booming industry was affecting the world. The modern environmental protection movement began as an effort to limit the amount of pollution in the water and air and to help create a better standard of living. These environmental activists in the movement persistently petitioned Congress, who eventually passed new measures for regulating water and air pollution. By the end of the decade, the environmental movement was so popular that it spawned a new holiday — Earth Day.

The first Earth Day

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During the 1960s, activists organized on streets and campuses across the country to protest the Vietnam War. Environmentalists decided to capitalize on that energy and create a new movement focused on the growing threats to nature. A senator from Wisconsin named Gaylord Nelson first championed the idea of Earth Day. After touring the destruction left by a massive oil spill in California, he decided to tap into the energy from the anti-war movement to help promote the growing environmental protection movement.

Nelson hoped that with enough public support, he could force the government to adopt more environmental protection regulations. He selected a date that fell right between spring break and final exams so plenty of young college students would be able to participate — the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970.

Earth Day success

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Some 20 million people across the United States participated in the first Earth Day, making it a massive success. The impact was so influential that by the end of the year, in December 1970, the federal government had created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and within a couple of years had also passed the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

The seed of the Earth Day movement took root quickly. By its 20th anniversary in 1990, more than 200 million people in 141 countries participated, including a group of astronauts from 15 countries who spoke at the U.N. about the importance of collective action to save the environment.

Celebrate Earth Day

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There are no official ways to celebrate Earth Day, but there are innumerable ways you can work to make a difference in your own home and community. Everyone is encouraged to do what they can to make the world a better and cleaner place; here are a few easy things you can do to help the planet:

  • Get a reusable water bottle to limit the use of plastic bottles.
  • Start composting in your kitchen or backyard.
  • Plant a garden.
  • Build a birdhouse or an apiary (bee house).
  • Start using reusable grocery and shopping bags.
  • Make your home as energy-efficient as possible.

April 22, 2020 will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and there are many digital events this year to keep participants connected as well as a number of suggestions for "24 hours of action." But however you choose to participate, be kind to the Earth and to yourself.