Today in environmental history: Earth Day founded in 1970

On this date in 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated. Founded by U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day encourages all citizens to help protect our environment and contribute to a healthy, sustainable world.

The original message for the day was “New Energy for a New Era,” paying attention to accelerating the transition to renewable energy worldwide.

In 1970 Americans were pumping leaded gas into their massive sedans, and industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of legal consequences or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Although mainstream America remained oblivious to environmental concerns, the stage had been set for change by the publication of Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestseller Silent Spring, which sold more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries. Up until that moment, more than any other person, Carson raised public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and public health.

Earth Day 1970 capitalized on this emerging consciousness, channeling the energy of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement and putting environmental concerns front and center.

The idea came to Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif. He realized that he could fuse the anti-war impetus with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, and force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Nelson recruited Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican congressman, to serve as his co-chair for a “national teach-in on the environment” and hired a staff of 85 to promote events across the land.

Twenty million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Isolated groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts, with bipartisan support.

The 20th Earth Day in 1990 went global, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries and lifting environmental issues onto the world stage. It stimulated recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Pres. Bill Clinton awarded Sen. Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 for his role as Earth Day founder.

 Environmental awareness has blossomed all over the world, meeting, of course, a strong climate change denial effort on the part of big business. But each year on April 22 Earth Day remains a powerful focal point around which people could demonstrate their commitment.

Adapted from

Photo: AP


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.