Earth Day was first celebrated in spring of 1970—on two different days.
Some observed Earth Day on March 21st, the spring equinox when night and day are of equal length. Others observed Earth Day on April 22, a Wednesday, a day that did not conflict with college exams or spring break, and did not fall on a religious holiday.
1960s Events Preceding the First Earth Day
Although Earth Day was the result of many events and actions, it was surely influenced by the 1960s. Here are a few examples:
- Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring brought pesticide use and its effects into the public view.
- Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War rallies, teach-ins, and protests spurred millions of people to action.
- Environmental organizations World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, and Greenpeace were founded.
- The U.S. and U.S.S.R signed a treaty banning nuclear weapon tests.
- Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire, and not for the first time.
- Congress passed environmental bills including the Water Quality Act of 1965 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.
- A huge oil spill occurred off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA, at the time it was the largest oil spill ever to occur in the U.S.
- Earthrise, a photograph taken by the Apollo 8 crew, showed the earth from space for the first time.
The First Earth Day on March 21, 1970
Environmentalist and peace activist, John McConnell, initiated the first Earth Day celebration held in San Francisco, CA on March 21, 1970.
He chose the vernal equinox to celebrate Earth Day.
“What could be more appropriate than the first moment of Spring, when day and night are equal around the world and hearts and minds can join together with thoughts of harmony and Earth’s rejuvenation.”
Mr. McConnell’s Earth Day Proclamation, dated June 21, 1970, suggesting Earth Day be observed on March 21st was signed by several notable people including environmentalist David Brower, anthropologist Margaret Mead, President of the UN Assembly, S.O. Adebo, UN Secretary General, U Thant, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
In his book, Earth Day: Vision for Peace, Justice, and Earth Care: My Life and Thought at Age 96, John McConnell recounted his life and the history of Earth Day.
The First Earth Day on April 22, 1970
U.S. Senator, environmentalist, and native of Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, initiated the first Earth Day celebrated by an estimated 20 million people across the U.S. on April 22, 1970.
According to Senator Nelson, the concept for Earth Day began in 1962 when he came up with an idea for President John F. Kennedy to go on a national conservation tour to focus attention on environmental issues.
Senator Nelson pitched the idea to Attorney General Robert Kennedy who recommended it to President Kennedy who liked the idea. Senator Nelson accompanied President Kennedy on the National Conservation Tour that took place in September 1963 but was disappointed when the environment did not become a national political priority.
For the next several years, Senator Nelson continued to be active in environmental issues. During a speaking tour in July 1969, the Earth Day idea finally took shape. Senator Nelson said he was reading an article about the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins occurring at colleges across the country. It occurred to him that a national grassroots movement might get the attention of the media and force politicians to address the public’s environmental concerns.
Senator Nelson formed the independent, nonprofit Environmental Teach-In, Inc. to organize an Environmental Teach-In Day across the country. The steering committee consisted of Senator Nelson, California Congressman, Pete McCloskey, and president of the Conservation Foundation, Sydney Howe. A Harvard graduate student, Denis Hayes, was hired to run it. On the way to April 22, 1970, Environmental Teach-In Day morphed into Earth Day.
In an August 9, 1993, letter to the President of the Earth Society Foundation, Gaylord Nelson recounted the history of Earth Day and his involvement in it. He was a counselor at the Wilderness Society at the time.
Earth Day History Highlights
From its dual beginnings in 1970, Earth Day has grown and spread around the world. A few historical highlights are listed below:
- 1990 – Earth Day goes global with 200 million people participating in 141 countries.
- 1993 – Original Earth Day organizer, Denis Hayes, founds Earth Day Network.
- 2000 – Earth Day goes online and uses the Internet to promote and organize events.
- 2009 – The United Nations proclaims April 22 “International Mother Earth Day.”
- 2010 – “A Billion Acts of Green®” campaign is launched on Earth Day’s 40th anniversary.
- Earth Day 2018 – Mr. Secretary, Go Green
- Earth Day 2017 – Mr. President, Go Green
- Earth Day 2014 – Mr. President, Go Green
- Earth Day 2013 – Mr. President, Go Green
- 5 Ways to Go Green on Earth Day 2014
- 10 Ways to Go Green for Earth Day 2013
- Earth Day Network – Earth Day: The History of A Movement
- Environmental History Timeline – Sixties 1960-69
- International Earth Day – What and When is Earth Day?
- International Earth Day – Earth Day is Not April 22
- University of Wisconsin at Madison, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies – The Nelson Legacy
- U.S. EPA – The First Earth Day in April 1970
- Wikipedia – Earth Day