22 April 2010

The History of Earth Day

As we prepare to roll home after a delicious Earth Day luncheon, let's take a few moments out of our dessert-induced stupor to reflect on the history of Earth Day itself.

The push to recognize the need to do something to address the steadily-worsening environment was initially made as early as 1962 by Senator Gaylord Nelson. (Now there's a name you don't hear much these days.) He even got President Kennedy on board, but, unfortunately, the issue didn't really take off.

Over the next few years, Sen. Nelson drew inspiration from the anti-Vietnam "teach-ins" taking place on college campuses around the country, and had the idea to stage his own environmentally-themed teach-in. In September 1969, he announced plans for a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment and invited everyone to participate.

On April 22, 1970, the event that Sen. Nelson initially called the National Environment Teach-In but was quickly dubbed Earth Day took place. On this first Earth Day, 20 million people across the U.S. participated. According to this account by Sen. 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.

By 1990, the 20th anniversary of Earth Day saw global participation, with over 140 countries involved. By the 30th anniversary in 2000, that number had swelled to 184 countries.

In recognition of his environmental work, Sen. Nelson was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest honor given to a civilian—in 1995. Although Nelson died in 2005 at the age of 89, he would no doubt be delighted to see that the cause he supported and tradition he began 40 years ago has been taken up so fervently by so many.

For a more thorough timeline of Earth Day history, take a look here. To learn more about the Earth Day Network, the organization that coordinates Earth Day events and helps found local Earth Day groups worldwide, check out their website.


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