50th Anniversary of Earth Day, 22 April 2020

The First Earth Day was borne from the Counterculture of the 1960s and on 22 April 1970, a nationwide 'teach-in' was initiated to encourage education and actions towards addressing global environmental degradation. That year, 20 million Americans (10% of the U.S. population at the time) mobilized in cities, towns, and on university campuses to launch the modern environmental movement. The 1960s were a transformative period during which radical social and political movements arose and were widely embraced. These included the civil rights movement, the peace movement that opposed the Vietnam War and -- at the outset of the 1970s -- the environmental movement.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published 'Silent Spring', the best seller which sounded the alarm about the dangers and consequences of widespread pesticide use and helped raise environmental consciousness in the general public. As the 60s continued, more and more people became aware of other threats to the environment, such as automobile emissions, oil spills and industrial waste. By 1967, the US federal government had passed the first Clean Air Act, the first federal emissions standards and the first list of endangered species. These laws were a start, but they did not go far enough to address the serious environmental problems facing the nation. In January 1969, the Union Oil well in Santa Barbara, California spilled more than 200 000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean over 11 days. That June, oil and chemicals floating on the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio burst into flames. Images of such disasters, broadcast across the country, helped fuel a growing outrage over the state of the environment.

Despite this growing consciousness, environmental activists hadn’t yet come together as a true movement by the end of the 60s, as had the civil rights and anti-war activists. This lack of momentum had long frustrated Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic senator and former governor of Wisconsin (1959-63) who was one of Congress’ most passionate environmentalists. During his years in the Senate, Nelson had also backed civil rights legislation and voted against appropriating funds for the war in Vietnam. In August 1969, Nelson traveled to California where he spoke at a water conference and visited the scene of the Santa Barbara oil spill. On that trip, he was struck by an article he read in Ramparts magazine about the anti-war 'teach-ins' held on college campuses. Nelson now saw their potential for energizing people — especially young people — by educating them about the need to protect the environment.

On 20 September 1969, speaking at the annual symposium of the Washington Environmental Council in Seattle, Nelson announced that he was planning a nationwide teach-in on the environment for the following spring, saying: “I am convinced that the same concern the youth of this nation took in changing this nation’s priorities on the war in Vietnam and on civil rights can be shown for the problem of the environment.” In December 1969, Nelson hired Denis Hayes, the 25-year-old former president of the student body at Stanford University, as national coordinator of the Environmental Teach-In, as Earth Day was originally known. On a tight budget, Hayes recruited a small staff of volunteers, many of them students, to come to Washington D.C. and coordinate Earth Day events in various regions of the country.Thanks in large part to these committed young grassroots activists, the first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970.

In New York, 250 000 people flooded Fifth Avenue, after Mayor John Lindsay agreed to bar traffic for two hours between 14th and 59th Streets, all the way up to Central Park. In Miami, supporters of Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war presidential candidate in 1968, staged a parody of the Orange Bowl parade called the 'Dead Orange Parade', As Adam Rome recounted in his book The Genius of Earth Day, one of the parade’s floats featured the Statue of Liberty wearing a gas mask, standing on a pedestal made out of garbage. Though these urban events made the biggest splash in the press, the true impact of Earth Day would come from the more than 12 000 events scattered around the country, attended by an estimated 20 million Americans. Many were held at high schools and colleges, and they featured more than 35 000 speakers, from scientists to folk singers to members of Congress, which had adjourned for the day.

Earth Day’s success helped spur long-delayed action in Washington on behalf of the environment. Just eight months later, Congress authorized the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the 1970s would see passage of a slew of environmental bills, including the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. At the same time, colleges across the country established environmental studies programs aimed at harnessing the wave of youthful energy for the future. Environmentalism may have begun as a countercultural force, but Earth Day made it into a movement.

How the First Earth Day Was Borne From 1960s Counterculture