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The First Earth Day

Updated: Sep 15, 2019

The first Earth Day happened on April 22nd, 1970. Here's a bit about what went down.

The date is January 28th, 1969. An oil rig off the coast of California in Santa Barbara explodes oil into the coastal water, killing hundreds of thousands of marine organisms. The pictures are devastating: black tar-covered beaches and dead oil-soaked sea birds. Locals are scared and angry: what are these huge oil companies doing with our precious piece of endless summer? What lasting impacts will this oil spill have for our surrounding environment?

National and international public outcry about the Santa Barbara oil spill were fueled by the student anti-war movement of the time. Change was in the foreseeable future, and environmentalists wanted political change. Seven years earlier Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was first published, and the world was slowly starting to educate itself on the impacts humans were having on the planet. Democratic senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin seized this opportunity to organize a nationwide environmental event dedicated to appreciating the planet, and he called it Earth Day.

Senator Nelson assembled a team, with Republican Senator Pete McCloskey and Harvard graduate student Denis Haye. Together they organized an event to show the government that people cared about protecting the environment.

Their goal was simple: put environmental protection onto the national political agenda.

The event was a resounding success. On April 22nd, 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets to celebrate the first ever Earth Day. Within three years the Environmental Protection Agency was born. The passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Act showed the government's newfound dedication to protecting the environment.

Fast-forward twenty years to April 22nd, 1990. This time, Earth Day went global, reaching 200 million people in 141 countries across the planet. Ten years later in 2000, the international Earth Day expanded to 184 countries and hundreds of millions of environmental activists. For each successive Earth Day, international environmental groups focused on different issues; from educating the public, to recycling and the plastic pollution problem, from sustainable energy to the global climate crisis. Each year, though, the central theme remains the same: protect our home.

Next year will hold Earth Day 2020, the 50th anniversary of Senator Nelson's event. The day is expected to reach millions around the world, showcasing the life-or-death importance of acting now. But the Earth Year Project believes that a day, a week, or even a month isn't enough. Let's take the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and make 2020 Earth Year.

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