What is the history of Earth Day? EPA Planet Polls

News & SocietyEvents

  • Author Brian Gross
  • Published June 23, 2011
  • Word count 1,344

What is the history of Earth Day? EPA Planet Polls. According to Gaylord Nelson Earth Day worked because of spontaneous response at the grassroots level.

Thirty-five years before Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth made global warming a household term and the green movement went mainstream, some 20 million people across the United States celebrated the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970. Today, more than 1 billion people around the world take part in the event.

Earth Day History

Until that time, protecting the planet's natural resources was not part of the national political agenda. Factories pumped pollutants into the air, lakes and rivers with few legal consequences, big, gas-guzzling cars were considered a sign of prosperity and few Americans were familiar with recycling. Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962, was determined to wake up the federal government to the fact that the earth was at risk. In 1969, Nelson, considered one of the leaders of the modern environmental movement, developed the idea for Earth Day.

Nelson announced the Earth Day concept at a conference in Seattle in the fall of 1969 and invited the entire nation to get involved. As he later recalled: "The wire services carried the story from coast to coast. The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air—and they did so with spectacular exuberance."

Dennis Hayes, a young activist who had served as student president at Stanford University, was selected as Earth Day's national coordinator, and he worked with an army of student volunteers and several staff members from 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, rallies were held in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and "most other American cities," according to the Environmental Protection Agency. "In fact, 80 percent of all observances were urban affairs." In New York City, Mayor John Lindsay closed off a portion of Fifth Avenue to traffic for several hours and spoke at a Union Square rally with actors Paul Newman and Ali McGraw. In Washington, D.C., thousands of people listened to speeches and performances by singer Pete Seeger and others and Congress went into recess so its members could speak to their constituents at Earth Day events.

The first Earth Day was effective at raising awareness about environmental issues and impacting public attitudes. 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." Today, it is hard to recall that most conservation organizations were uninvolved in lobbying against pollution in the 1960s -- not seeing what it had to do with wildlife -- and most urban-oriented groups were dismissive of the "birds and squirrels" groups.) By the end of 1970, the linkage was clear to all, and the next few years amply demonstrated the political power of their combined forces.

During the 1970s, a number of important pieces of environmental legislation were passed, among them the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Another key development was the establishment, in December 1970, of the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, which was tasked with protecting human health and safeguarding the natural environment—air, water and land. Before the agency was founded, "the federal government was not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants that harm human health and degrade the environment," according to EPA dot-gov.

Earth Day 1990

When the National Earth Day Committee evaluated potential sponsors for the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, only SEVEN companies in the United States made the grade.

To get past the screening committee and become a sponsor, a company had to demonstrate a proven commitment to environmental values. If a company had not endorsed the Valdez Principles (now called Ceres)- a set of 10 rules - governing its behavior - it had to introduce a major corporate environmental program developed in conjunction with Earth Day Staff.

"No polluters were allowed," , said Maureen Early, a spokeswoman at the National Earth Day Committee in Palo Alto, California. A research firm donated its services, so the group had access to the environmental records of companies. Early declined to name those that did not qualify, but said about 100 companies called the group. "We wanted to include corporations that are environmentally responsible and progressive," said Christina Dresser, executive director of the The National Earth Day Committee.

As a result, the committee chose only seven corporations to be the official sponsors: Shaklee Corporation, Aveda Corporation, Church and Dwight Co. Inc., California Energy Inc., (a supplier of geothermal energy), Conservatree (recycled paper), and Smith and Hawken (a garden accessory supplier)

Dennis Hayes, who now was the chairman of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, warned consumers against being wooed by companies with slick public relations messages that tout environmental concerns. In a magazine published by Environmental Action Inc., he stated "If polluting corporations have the temerity to wrap themselves in the Earth Day flag, then they should be held accountable to the public by making concrete changes in business practices or suffer public exposure."

As the 20th anniversary of Earth Day approached, conditions seemed ripe to take Earth Day to an international audience. Ozone depletion, climate change, threats to the world's oceans, and other trans-boundary issues were receiving more media attention. A successful Earth Day could be instrumental in encouraging heads of state to personally attend the forthcoming UN Earth Summit in Brazil, and vote on behalf of several important conventions.

Hayes, by then an attorney, took leave from his law firm to serve as the full-time Chair and CEO. Senator Nelson, then Counselor to the Wilderness Society, agreed to serve as Honorary Chair, and he pursued an extensive speaking schedule on behalf of the event. As stated, Christina Desser was Executive Director, while Mark Dubois and Teresa McGlashin co-directed international outreach.

By April, 1990, events had been organized in 141 countries. Estimates of participants around the world ranged as high as 200 million.

Earth Day 2000+

In 2000, Earth Day focused on clean energy and involved hundreds of millions of people in 184 countries and 5,000 environmental groups, according to EDN. Activities ranged from a traveling, talking drum chain in Gabon, Africa, to a gathering of hundreds of thousands of people at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Today, the Earth Day Network collaborates with over 17,000 partners and organizations in 174 countries. According to EDN, more than 1 billion people are involved in Earth Day activities, making it "the largest secular civic event in the world."

Earth Day '70: What It Meant, by Gaylord Nelson [EPA Journal - April 1980] excerpt

"In the 1970s, a sufficiently large and dispersed group of people recognized the fragility and finite nature of the Earth's ecosystem, understood that everything is connected to everything else, and accepted the responsibility not only to set straight the mistakes of the past but to avoid repeating them in the future. So long as the human species inhabits the Earth, proper management of its resources will be the most fundamental issue we face. Our very survival will depend upon whether or not we are able to preserve, protect and defend our environment. We are not free to decide about whether or not our environment "matters." It does matter, apart from any political exigencies. We disregard the needs of our ecosystem at our mortal peril. That was the great lesson of Earth Day. It must never be forgotten." Senator Nelson (D-Wis.) proposed Earth Day '70.

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