Today we mark the fifty-first Earth Day, an annual event to celebrate, promote, and educate the public about healthy ecologies and the environmental protections that sustain them. Since 1970, Earth Day has expanded far beyond its original scope, birthing the modern environmental movement, becoming an international holiday in 1990, and gaining renewed urgency with the acceleration of global climate change in the 21st century. Yet, Earth Day now is too-often reduced to small, single issues and individual responsibility. While there is nothing wrong with promoting recycling, reducing energy consumption, and picking up litter (indeed, VPT will be joining Voluntown’s downtown clean-up event this Saturday morning), such actions alone are inadequate to address the global existential threat that climate change poses. Environmentalism has also become severely politicized, as most dramatically evidenced by the Trump Administration’s reversal and rollback of more than 100 environmental protections in just four years. Therefore, on this anniversary, let us examine how and why the first Earth Day came to be, what occurred on that day, and what happened as a result.
A few seemingly unrelated events led to the invention and success of the first Earth Day. In 1962, the great media theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village” to describe the increasing interconnectedness of the modern world. That same year, biologist Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking book Silent Spring, which revealed the ecological dangers caused by massive and indiscriminate use of pesticides. Thanks to the attempts of industrial chemical companies like DuPont, who attempted to discredit Carson while the work was still in pre-print, Silent Spring published with massive publicity. Within just a few years, Silent Spring had inspired countless people, especially in the scientific community, to think more critically about the greater consequences of modern scientific intervention in the natural world: in time for much of the American public to feel disturbed at the news of their government using Agent Orange and “defoliation” tactics in the Vietnam War. Then, in 1968, NASA’s Apollo 8 mission successfully sent a team of astronauts around the moon and back for the first time, returning with the first color photos of Earth from space taken by a human being; included in the photo set is the famous Earthrise image.
That iconic photo of the singular, majestic blue and white orb rising out of the infinite shadows of the Moon has been called “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” It has evoked awe and wonder since Americans first saw it in 1968. But that beautiful image of the Earth fell into stark relief against the realities of unfettered resource extraction and pollution just a month later. In late January 1969, an offshore oil drilling accident off the coast of California resulted in the Santa Barbara oil spill, the worst oil spill in U.S. waters up to that time. For over two months, crude oil under immense pressure bubbled up from the seafloor, poisoning and killing an untold number of birds and sea life. Commercial fishing around the area was halted, beaches were blackened with oil, and the bodies of dead marine mammals and birds started to wash ashore at an alarming rate. The ecological damage was shocking enough to prompt an enormous public response even before anyone knew the full extent of the disaster. Soon, hundreds of volunteers were trying to absorb the oil in the water and on the beaches with massive quantities of straw and detergent. Workers in bulldozers removed contaminated sand. Airplanes hastily dumped chemical dispersants over the spill to hasten the clearing process. After 45 straight days of cleaning efforts, most of the area was cleared of oil, but the leak continued for the rest of the year, and the negative effects of the spill continued to manifest.
It was all of these factors converging at once that sparked the idea for what would become Earth Day. The concept started in mid-1969 with Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson as a day of teach-ins at colleges across the United States. Inspired by the student activism of the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement and the antiwar movement, Senator Nelson formed the nonprofit Environmental Teach-In, Inc. with bipartisan support and hired Harvard graduate student Denis Hayes to serve as National Coordinator of the entire campaign. But by 1970, the concept of the teach-in already seemed outmoded to some, and the “Environmental Teach-In” name was having little success in inspiring participation. Then, a successful ad-man named Julien Koenig offered to help with the campaign, ultimately proposing the name “Earth Day.” The new name was immediately adopted nationwide, and magazines and newspapers ran Earth Day ads advertisements under the new name brought in donations from thousands of supporters and potential participants. The supporters, however, were more than just college students: letters and donations came in from K-12 teachers, housewives, and especially organized labor. Educational materials were produced and distributed for classrooms and community events. Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers and a firm supporter of the civil rights and antiwar movements, had personally made the first donation to the campaign within the first week of its announcement; he would go on to direct his union to fund all of the printing and mailing of Earth Day materials, to fund all of the phone lines between organizers across the country, and encouraged workers in every participating city to join Earth Day events.
On April 22, 1970, twenty million people across the United States demonstrated at more than 12,000 Earth Day events in support of increasing environmental protections: 20 million people disturbed by the findings about ubiquitous pesticides in Carson’s Silent Spring, moved by the far-away splendor of the Earthrise photo, horrified by the loss of animal life from the Santa Barbara oil spill, or otherwise compelled to stand against preventable ecological damage. It was the largest demonstration for environmental protections in history, and rather diverse in how they were conducted. Some purposely evoked the catastrophic oil spill from the year before. One group dumped oil-coated rubber ducks in front of the Department of the Interior, while another dragged dead fish in a net down New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Others focused on related topics like the energy industry as a whole, or industrial pollution from factories. In some places, the mood was warm and cozy; at others, intense and carnivalesque. The events proved to be so popular that many were extended through the week. Several colleges, where most of the activist energy was usually directed toward the antiwar movement, ended up holding some environmental teach-ins after all.
The first Earth Day, with its joyous mix of theatricality, education, and community unity, changed the lives of many Americans. Among those who experienced that change was the staff of Environmental Teach-In, Inc. who resigned after the first Earth Day and formed a new group, Environmental Action. But some politicians were also compelled by the intensity of the burgeoning environmental movement to take action. Due to the environmental concerns that had been growing since Silent Spring was published, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was the first bill of 1970 that President Nixon signed into law. Within three months of the first Earth Day, and in part because of its success, Nixon sent a proposal for a new independent agency of the federal government to coordinate the objectives outlined in the NEPA, and before the year was out, the Environmental Protection Agency was already sending notices to cities to comply with new regulations or else face federal lawsuits.
As the first Earth Day shows, marching and picketing are not the only effective collective actions available to us. Working in conjunction with educational literature, emotionally moving art, community events like teach-ins, good media coverage, and a diverse range of interested parties from the community, political demonstrations can be celebratory events in which people are reminded of the things in life worth preserving. The first Earth Day also shows that protest is often most effective when a plurality of the public takes part. Without all the different kinds of people who stepped up to support the campaign -- housewives, union members, teachers, students, ad-men and politicians from both major parties -- Earth Day would have been over before it started. Now, we look back on a troubled recent past and face ahead an uncertain future. The Paris Climate Accords have largely failed to curb global climate change, even as the covid-19 pandemic kept so many sequestered at home. Earth Day may have started with a focus on the United States, but to truly address the greater concerns to which Earth Day points, we will need robust, intense international cooperation -- and in all likelihood, a globe-spanning network of groups and individuals to collectively pressure their respective governments.
Luckily, much of that groundwork has already been done. Today is the 51st Earth Day. The movement is already here.
We commit a significant amount of research and writing to produce A Peace of History each week. If you like our weekly posts, please consider supporting this project with a one-time or recurring donation. Your gift will be used to continue producing more A Peace of History posts as well as the greater mission of VPT. You may type in however much you would like to give; contributions of all sizes are appreciated. Click this link to learn more about what we do and how you can donate: https://www.mightycause.com/organization/Voluntown-Peace-Trust
“Earthrise.” NASA, (accessed 21 April 2021). https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_1249.html
Hill, Gladwin. “EARTH DAY THEME CONTINUES IN U.S.” The New York Times, 24 April 1970 (accessed 21 April 2021). https://www.nytimes.com/1970/04/24/archives/earth-day-theme-continues-in-us-antipollution-activity-goes-beyond.html
Lewis, Jack. “The Birth of EPA.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (accessed 21 April 2021). https://web.archive.org/web/20060922192621/http://epa.gov/35thanniversary/topics/epa/15c.htm
Popovich, Nadja, Livia Albeck-Ripka, and Kendra Pierre-Louis. “The Trump Administration Rolled Back More Than 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List.” The New York Times, updated 20 January 2021 (accessed 21 April 2021). https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks-list.html
Rome, Adam. “Earth Day 1970 was more than just a protest. It built a movement.” The Washington Post, 22 April 2020 (accessed 21 April 2021).
Yeo, Sophie. “How the largest environmental movement in history was born.” BBC, 21 April 2020 (accessed 21 April 2021). https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200420-earth-day-2020-how-an-environmental-movement-was-born
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.