Earth Day, celebrated every year on April 22, was founded in 1970 by then U.S. senator, Gaylord Nelson. After witnessing the massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California in 1969, Nelson felt the rising need for national public and government attention around environmental issues such as water and air pollution.
Senator Nelson focused his efforts around a “national teach-in on the environment” and promoted the idea heavily to national media outlets. Additionally, Nelson recruited 85 like-minded congressmen, professionals, and advocates to serve on a committee with him to sponsor the event.
The First Earth Day Event
On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day events took place across the country. More than 20 million Americans showed their support for the environment by participating in rallies in streets, parks, and other public congregations, and many institutions of higher learning organized protests against oil spills, factory and power plant pollution, sewage, toxic dumping, the use of pesticides, freeways, loss of wilderness, and wildlife extinction.
Earth Day 1970 found a country united, gaining support from both Republicans and Democrats, wealthy and poor, businessmen and farmers. By the end of 1970, the United States Environmental Protection Agency was in effect, along with the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
Earth Day 1990 saw another huge success as environmental leaders this time organized a worldwide event. More than 200 million people from 141 different countries participated. The 1990 event also encouraged then U.S. President Bill Clinton to award Earth Day founder, Senator Gaylord Nelson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.
Today, Earth Day is the largest secular observance in the world. More than a billion people participate each year encouraging both individual behavior changes and public policy changes.