On April 22, millions of Americans and people from all over the world will take time to honor and celebrate planet Earth. They’ll plant trees, dedicate parks, clean up rivers, take public transportation and participate in hundreds of other activities that heighten awareness of environmental issues. Earth Day is a time to reflect on our planet’s fragility, resilience and recovery. It’s a unifying event that brings people together, no matter their age, race, nationality or political agenda. The thread that binds them is their desire to respect, honor and protect the planet.
The environmentally concerned statesman
Earth Day was the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin, who in 1962 was concerned that “the state of our environment was simply a non-issue in the politics of the country.”
“All across the country,” he wrote, “evidence of environmental degradation was appearing everywhere, and everyone noticed except the political establishment. The people were concerned, but the politicians were not.” In 1963, he persuaded President Kennedy to take a national conservation tour. While it did little to bring the issue to the forefront, it did become the seed of what was to become Earth Day.
Through the ‘60s, Nelson continued to speak on environmental issues. While on a conservation speaking tour in 1969, he saw how non-violent protests called “teach-ins” were effectively used on college campuses to protest the war in Vietnam. He believed this grassroots approach would work well to heighten public awareness of environmental issues. Nelson announced that in the spring of 1970, there would be a nationwide “demonstration” on behalf of the environment.
“The response was electric,” Nelson said. “Inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air.” The country was ripe for such a demonstration, as evidenced by the participation of two thousand colleges and universities, ten thousand high schools and grade schools, and thousands of communities. In all, 20 million Americans participated in that first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
From activism to acts
This was the beginning of the environmental movement in the United States. That same year saw the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. By 1980, multiple environmental acts became law: the Clean Air Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act, among many others. What started as a grassroots effort is now an international event celebrated by billions of people from around the planet. Until his death in 2005 at the age of 89, Nelson remained dedicated to improving and protecting the environment.
Want to know what activities are planned for Earth Day in your community? Contact the mayor’s office, city hall, newspapers, radio and TV stations, children’s and science museums, colleges and universities, and non-profit environmental groups. You may not find a “teach-in,” but you’re sure to find an activity you and your family can participate in to show your concern for the planet.
Tidbits about Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day:
Governor of Wisconsin 1959-1962
- U.S. Senator from Wisconsin 1963-1981
- Earth Day founder
- Co-sponsor of the National Environment Education Act
- Counselor of the Wilderness Society
- Created legislation to:
- Preserve the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail
- Mandate fuel efficiency standards in automobiles
- Control strip mining
- Establish the St. Croix Wild and Scenic Riverway (MN/WI), and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (in Lake Superior off the Wisconsin shoreline)
Originally posted in 2008.