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The ANA Messenger - Spring Edition

Published: June 6, 2013
Social and Economic Development Strategies (SEDS), Environmental Regulatory Enhancement

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The History of Earth Day

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A poster produced by Walt Kelly for the first Earth Day in 1970. "We have met the enemy and he is us"
A poster produced by Walt Kelly for the first Earth Day in 1970.

Each year, Earth Day is celebrated globally on April 22.  Inspired by the student anti-war movement in the late 1960s, Senator Gaylord Nelson organized the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 as a “national teach-in on the environment.”  This demonstration drew participants from thousands of colleges, universities, primary and secondary schools, and communities across the U.S., and “brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favor of environmental reform.”

This first Earth Day is widely recognized as marking the beginning of the modern environmental movement.  The 1960s was a dynamic time for ecology in the U.S.; increasing grassroots activism and the publication of Rachel Carson’s bestseller Silent Spring in 1962 brought public awareness to the environment and public health.  Different groups that had been fighting against issues such as oil spills, toxic dumps, air pollution, and the loss of wildlife realized they all shared common values.  This grassroots level response effectively put environmental protection onto the national political agenda.

The first Earth Day and the birth of the modern environmental movement is credited with the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970, and the passage of the landmark Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts, as well as many other groundbreaking environmental laws.

Environmental groups around the world continue to use Earth Day as a platform to inspire policy and human behavior changes; annual events are held worldwide to demonstrate support for environmental protection and a healthy, sustainable environment.  More than 1 billion people now celebrate Earth Day activities in over 192 countries each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world.  The April 22 date was designated as International Mother Earth Day by the United Nations in 2009, and is now coordinated by the Earth Day Network.  The fight for a clean environment continues with increasing urgency, as the damaging effects of climate change become more evident every day.

Each decade sees Earth Day celebrated in more countries by more people, tackling issues such as recycling, global warming, clean energy, and climate change.  Much like 1970, Earth Day 2013 comes at a time of great challenge for the environmental community: climate change deniers, well-funded oil lobbyists, uncompromising politicians, economic downturn, and a divided environmental community all contribute to a strong narrative that overshadows the need for continued progress and change on environmental issues.  In spite of these challenges, efforts continue to keep environmental policy on the national and global political agenda.

The information for this article was gathered from the Earth Day Network’s webpage, “Earth Day: The History of a Movement” at http://www.earthday.org/earth-day-history-movement, and the EPA’s Earth Day website at http://www.epa.gov/earthday/.  Please visit these sites for more information on Earth Day and the work these organizations do.

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Last Reviewed: October 17, 2016