The Origins of Earth DayBy Mara Strom
Earth Day is a day to both celebrate the environmental victories of the past and to reflect on the many remaining opportunities for improvement. Whether you celebrate Earth Day by attending a rally, signing a petition or switching to highly efficient light bulbs, make an effort to be mindful of the original vision for this day: to serve as a national learn-in for the sake of the environment.
On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated by 20 million people across America. This once small, grassroots movement has evolved today into a worldwide campaign to protect the environment.
More than four decades ago, when the first Earth Day was but a dream in the mind of its founder, Senator Gaylord Nelson, the environmental landscape in America was bleak: US cities were suffocated by smog and rivers were so polluted they actually caught fire. And yet the American public was largely silent, legislators were uninvolved, and industry polluters were unconcerned.
The mounting environmental crisis prompted the then US Senator from Wisconsin to propose the first ever Earth Day. Senator Nelson called it a protest movement, intended to "shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda." The Senator succeeded in passing a Congressional resolution declaring April 22 a national celebration of the earth a day he referred to as a "national environmental teach-in". This groundbreaking effort earned Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award.
Despite its Congressional backing, Earth Day was a decidedly grassroots movement. Under the leadership of organizer Denis Hayes, April 22, 1970 saw millions of Americans calling for a healthy and sustainable environment in coast-to-coast rallies and thousands of campus protests. Once isolated non-profit organizations also gained national recognition and began working together toward their common agenda.
For two decades, Earth Day continued as a national focal point for the promotion of environmental awareness in the United States. Then in 1990, Hayes took his operations global. More than 200 million people in 141 countries were mobilized in Hayes campaign to put the spotlight on international environmental issues. Among its victories, the campaign paved the road to the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Another decade passed and people around the world continued to celebrate Earth Day. As the millennium drew nearer, Earth Day activists turned to their retired leader Denis Hayes to spearhead another international campaign this one focused on global warming and clean energy alternatives. On April 22, 2000, the 30th anniversary of the first Earth Day, more than 5,000 groups from a record-breaking 184 countries celebrated Earth Day. National events were held around the globe: From Gabon, Africa, where a traveling drum chain brought the message from village to village, to Washington, D.C., where hundreds of thousands of people marched on the National Mall.
Today Earth Day is an opportunity both to celebrate the environmental victories of the past four decades and to reflect on the many remaining opportunities for improvement. Whether you celebrate Earth Day by attending a rally, signing a petition or switching to highly efficient light bulbs, make an effort to be mindful of Senator Nelsons original vision for this day: to serve as a national learn-in for the sake of the environment.
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