Earth Week Chronicles: Nurturing Nature, Sustaining Life 

A Journey Through Decades of Environmental Consciousness

Earth Day was founded in 1970, as an educational initiative. Developed by Senator Gaylord Nelson, it started as a “national teach-in on the environment” held on April 22 to engage students and raise awareness about pollution and environmental issues nationally. Since then, it has grown to the point that it’s now celebrated globally and typically extends into Earth Week. 

Earth Day History

By the early 1960s, Americans were beginning to recognize pollution’s environmental impacts. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” warned about pesticide dangers in rural America. Later that decade, a 1969 fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River exposed chemical waste problems. Until then, national politics largely ignored environmental protection, with few activists addressing industrial pollution. Factories freely emitted pollutants, and large cars symbolized wealth. Additionally, recycling was unfamiliar to most Americans at the time.

Who Started Earth Day?

In 1962, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat, entered the U.S. Senate with a mission to alert the government about environmental threats. By 1969, he was seen as a key figure in the environmental movement. Nelson drew inspiration from anti-Vietnam War “teach-ins” for Earth Day, aiming for a massive grassroots event to spotlight environmental concerns nationally.

Nelson unveiled the Earth Day idea at a Seattle conference in late 1969, urging nationwide participation. He remembered that “the news spread rapidly across the country, igniting a fervent response. People reached out through telegrams, letters, and calls, expressing deep concern about environmental degradation with remarkable enthusiasm.”

Denis Hayes, a Stanford University activist, became Earth Day’s national coordinator, leading student volunteers and Nelson’s Senate office staff to orchestrate the event. Nelson remarked, “Earth Day succeeded due to the spontaneous grassroots involvement. We lacked the time and resources to coordinate 20 million demonstrators and the myriad schools and communities that joined. Earth Day essentially organized itself, which was its remarkable achievement.”

The first Earth Day

The first Earth Day was on April 22, 1970, with gatherings across major U.S. cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles. NYC Mayor John Lindsay closed off part of Fifth Avenue to traffic for many hours and spoke at a rally in Union Square alongside actors Paul Newman and Ali McGraw. In Washington D.C., thousands listened to speeches and performances by singers like Pete Seeger. That day, Congress went into recess so members could talk to their constituents at Earth Day Events. 

This first Earth Day significantly boosted environmental awareness and shifted public perspectives. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Polls after Earth Day 1970 showed a 2,500 percent increase, with 25 percent of Americans viewing environmental protection as a crucial goal.” This event set the stage for a productive “Environmental decade,” per Senator Nelson, leading to critical environmental laws like the Clean Air ActEndangered Species Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970.

Earth Day through the years

June 4, 1916: Earth Day founder, Gaylord Nelson is born. A veteran of World War II, Nelson later served in the Wisconsin State Senate and as the governor before his election to the U.S. Senate in 1962. 

1962: Rachel Carson’s publishes “Silent Spring.” This rang an alarm bell about the hazards of widespread pesticide use, significantly heightening American environmental awareness.

1963: Senator Nelson joins President John F. Kennedy on a nationwide tour to highlight environmental concerns, yet environmental protection remained a minor concern for most politicians and citizens.

1969: Chemical waste in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River ignites a fire, symbolizing the harm industrial pollution inflicts on America’s natural resources. After being inspired by Vietnam War protestors’ “teach-ins” on college campuses, Senator Nelson unveils the concept of Earth Day.

April 22, 1970: Twenty million people participate in the first Earth Day in the U.S.

1970: The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is established as an environmental advocacy group. It now exceeds one million members and employs over 300 experts, with offices in major cities like New York City, Beijing, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

December 1970: President Richard Nixon creates the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to safeguard human health and the environment—focusing on air, water, and land.

1971: Environmental activist organization Greenpeace was established. It currently operates in 55 countries globally, campaigning against various issues like nuclear power, whaling, and global warming.

1972: Congress passes the Clean Water Act, helping to limit pollutants in rivers, lakes, and streams.

1973: Congress passes the Endangered Species Act to protect animals and their ecosystems.

1980: After 18 years in the U.S. Senate, Nelson lost his bid for a fourth term. Post-Senate, he became a counselor at The Wilderness Society, an environmental organization.

1990: Earth Day celebrates its 20th anniversary, with over 140 countries participating. 

1995: Nelson receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honor) for his dedicated efforts in environmental work. President Bill Clinton praises Nelson and refers to him as the “father of Earth Day.” 

2000: Earth Day celebrates it’s 30th anniversary, with hundreds of millions in 184 countries participating, focusing on “clean energy.”

July 3, 2005: Nelson passes away at 89. His New York Times obituary highlights his significant legislative contributions, including sponsoring laws that protected the Appalachian Trail, set fuel efficiency standards for cars, addressed strip mining damage, and led to the banning of DDT insecticide.

2007: Green Apple Festival Earth Day events draw capacity crowds in New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago. Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo sees over 40,000 attendees, setting a new single-day attendance record for Earth Day celebrations. Additionally, Earth Day Network members organize 10,000 Earth Day events worldwide.

2010: Earth Day celebrates its 40th anniversary, with climate rallies and concerts help on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

December 2015: At the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, France, representatives from 196 nations negotiate and adopt an international treaty on climate change, designed to lower emissions of greenhouse gases. However, the U.S. withdraws from the pact in 2020 during President Trump’s administration, only to rejoin in 2021 under President Biden.

August 2018: Swedish teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg initiates a protest outside the Swedish Parliament, displaying a sign reading “School Strike for Climate.” Her call for action against global warming quickly gains worldwide attention. By November 2018, over 17,000 students across 24 countries join in climate strikes.

August 2019: The United Nations Climate Summit convenes in NYC, concluding that limiting global warming to 1.5℃ by the end of this century is the safe threshold socially, economically, politically, and scientifically. The summit also establishes a target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

April 22, 2020: Earth Day celebrates its 50th anniversary. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many activities were virtual. A three-day livestream event led by youth activists and drew millions of viewers.

The journey of Earth Day has since become a global phenomenon, promoting green living and climate crisis awareness. Spearheaded by Senator Gaylord Nelson, its impact has been profound, leading to legislative achievements, environmental activism, and global climate initiatives, cementing its status as a catalyst for change in addressing environmental challenges worldwide.

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