Earth Day is a somewhat debated holiday. Earthday.net says what I had always heard -- that Earth Day was first celebrated on April 22, 1970, at the instigation of U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson. His staff member Denis Hayes organized rallies and demonstrations accross the U.S. and brought the threatened condition of the environment to mainstream consciousness. Earthday.net says that "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."

However, according to www.earthsite.org, the founder of Earth Day was John McConnell, who intended it to fall on the Spring Equinox (usually March 21). That site says that the April event (which always falls on a Sunday toward the end of the month) was originally called "The Environmental Teach-In" but the name of the equinox event was borrowed by fundraisers for the Teach-In. (Amusingly enough, the writers on earthsite.org do not actually say who is responsible for appropriating McConnell's idea for a different date.)

Nonetheless, the idea of Earth Day, whenever it's celebrated, is to promote environmental action -- people taking care of the Earth, stopping pollution, encouraging conservation of resources, and so forth.

Earth Day, which takes place on April 22nd, was born from an idea by Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1962. Nelson observed that environmental degradation was sweeping the nation and wanted to find a way to bring the issue to the nation's attention. Nelson pitched the idea to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who took the idea to the President (at the time JFK), from this idea President Kennedy launched an eleven state "conservation tour" in September of 1963. This tour did not succeed in putting environmental issues into the national agenda.

Senator Nelson continued to speak out to people about environmental concerns, with the motive of thrusting environmental issues into the political mainstream, conducting a 25 state tour. In 1969, when protests of the Viet Nam war were in full swing. Nelson noticed the phenomenon of "teach-ins" taking place on college campuses all over the nation. He used this example as a way to start a grassroots campaign in promoting environmental awareness. The plan was to infuse the student's anti-war energy into environmental issues as well.

In September 1969 Senator Nelson announced that in the Spring of 1970 there would be nationwide demonstration on behalf of the environment. Five months later the New York Times ran an article noticing the proliferation of environmental events. On April 22nd, 1970 twenty million people across the nation participated in the first Earth Day demonstrations. Earth Day has waxed and waned with the prevailing environmental attitude since then, but it remains a piece of Americana for all time.
Noders Note: This writeup was being worked on while Segnbora-t's wu was posted, it is not meant to correct her write-up in any way. The information in this node comes from Senator Nelson's own account on how he helped create Earth Day.

    I just read that the first Earth Day had 20 million participants in the country.

    I fondly remember the first Earth Day. I was in high school, at a boarding school in New Hampshire. I remember being told, the day before, that the school was 'committed' to participating in something new: 'Earth Day'. There was this green patch people started to wear on their sleeves next to their peace patch. I decided it was a good excuse to sleep in. So I did. To make sure no one disturbed me, I pushed my bureau up against my door. At 9:01am, there was a knock on my door. I didn't answer. Suddenly there was a great commotion as someone was trying to kick in my door. The bureau was blocking them, but with persistence, they managed to break the lock, and push my bureau enough so that they could enter. It was the school's headmaster (a muscular ex-linebacker). He grabbed me by my hair and threw me onto the floor and told me I had 30 seconds to get dressed. The bus was waiting for me for 'Earth Day'. I was herded onto one of many buses where other sleepy teenagers were slowly waking up and driven to an isolated stretch of road where I spent the next few hours until lunch picking up trash. Then after lunch (bags of sandwiches and water) we were sent back to the road for more trash collecting. We went back to the school at 5 pm. I learned that all over the state students were forced to go out and pick up trash all over the state roads. No one in my school, or the other schools I talked to, was given a choice.

    I just read that the first Earth Day had 20 million participants in the country. A magic day.

    Beverley Eyre, April 23, 2002

Noded with author's express permission.

The first “Earth Day” Celebration was held on April 22, 1970. I was a senior in High School in a small town in the Yakima valley. Our “celebration” mainly consisted of cleaning up our town by planting flowers, painting garbage cans, picking up trash—and burning it!

The photos in the yearbook show cheerful and industrious groups of students, many of the girls with bouffant-styled hair held in place by fluorocarbon-propelled hairspray. The participants had their cars parked nearby—late 1960s pickups and “muscle” cars.

 Hanford, Exxon Valdez, Gulf Coast, Shrinking Polar Caps, Global Warming, Oceans filled with islands of plastic trash . . . Sorry, kids—somewhere along the line we appear to have dropped the ball.

A Newspaper headline from The New York Times proclaimed:

EARTH DAY: All for it—now let’s DO something!

The article indicated: Conservatives were for it. Left-liberals were for it. Democrats, Republicans and independents were for it . . . It was Earth Day, and like Mother’s Day, no one in public office could be against it.

The local paper included an article by AP press writer Arthur Everett, with the headline:

Generations unite for clean world

Youth joined hands with age across the generation gap

Wednesday in a singular celebration of Earth Day, pleading for a halt to pollution lest it destroy the (world) man lives in. Across the nation, trash was gathered, streets swept, ponds and parks cleaned, trees and flowers planted.

The article also described many of the “celebrations” taking place, including:

  • Protesting internal combustion fumes by having a mock burial of a gasoline engine in Oklahoma City.
  • Protesting air quality by wearing gauze masks at a High School in Joliet, Illinois and placing a gas mask on the Trojan mascot at USC in Los Angeles.
  • In the Miami area they dumped yellow dye into sewage treatment plants to trace the seepage of wastes into waterways.
  • To call attention to oil slicks created by off-shore oil wells a group calling itself Environmental Vigilantes dumped crankcase oil into a reflecting pool at the San Francisco office of Standard Oil Company.

Earth Day is still alive and well 40 years later. But many local celebrations still seem geared towards cosmetic events such as Beach Cleanups and planting trees, and if you perform an internet search for the term "Earth Day" you may find sites selling Earth Day gifts such as Organic Cotton Apparel for Dogs and Ralph Lauren Polo™ Canvas Totes.

But it isn't all about "prettifying" communities and commercialism. The Earth Day Network (EDN) grew out of that first event over 40 years ago and has “partners in 192 countries to broaden, diversify and mobilize the environmental movement.”1 So I can be cautiously optimistic when I drive my fuel-efficient vehicle to the store and try to buy locally-grown food to place in my reusable grocery bags. Every day should be Earth Day.

Now, kids: let me tell you about another movement which apparently has been ignored in the past 40 years: ZPG (Zero Population Growth) . . .

1. It is still true: if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem.

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