Earth Day

An estimated twenty million Americans took part in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Virtually every community from Maine to California hosted activities. Congress adjourned for the day. All the television networks gave it significant coverage. In New York, hundreds of thousands of people jammed Fifth Avenue from Fourteenth Street all the way to Central Park to listen to politicians, scientists, and celebrities. In San Jose, California, college students held a funeral for the internal combustion engine, and buried a new car.

An Earth flag is being held by a member of the crowd at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., for Earth Day 1990. (© Todd A. Gipstein/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)
An Earth flag is being held by a member of the crowd at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., for Earth Day 1990.
(© Todd A. Gipstein/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)

Earth Day arrived at the close of the 1960s—a time of cultural and political turmoil. At its core was a growing recognition that unconstrained growth could produce a legacy of poisoned streams, filthy air, urban blight, and vanishing wilderness. Earth Day tied these issues, and a wide array of other concerns, together under the environmental banner and greatly magnified their clout and visibility. It is generally cited as marking the birth of the modern U.S. environmental movement.

Initially, some activists worried that environmental concerns might undermine other causes, such as peace and civil rights. This did not happen. Indeed, with its successful reengagement of the politically alienated middle class, Earth Day arguably helped revitalize a civil society that was becoming a bit frayed by violence at the end of the 1960s.

The roots of Earth Day can be traced to a speech given by Democratic Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson at the University of Washington in September of 1969. Decrying a large oil spill in Santa Barbara as emblematic of environmental problems, he called for a teach-in on the environment at colleges across the country, modeled on the earlier anti–Vietnam War teach-ins.

Senator Nelson repeated variations of this speech over the next few months to enthusiastic audiences. Based on that response, he created a nonprofit organization to organize the campaign. He invited Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey to cochair the board, and asked Denis Hayes, a politically active recent graduate of Stanford University, to serve as National Coordinator.

Hayes quickly rented some ramshackle offices and assembled the core national staff. Eventually, the Washington, D.C.–based staff grew to about sixty, supplemented by a few hundred, mostly youthful volunteers. Some had been active in politics as supporters of Gene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, or John Lindsay. Others were drawn from the counterculture , and were interested in recycling, organic food, solar power, and alternatives to the automobile. Under the pressure of an April 22 deadline, this diverse group put their differences aside and forged a very effective team.

In early 1970 this small group of young people, most in their early twenties, made a series of decisions that were to shape and propel the environmental movement through the next few decades.

The name "Earth Day" was chosen by Hayes and his staff over beer and pizza one night for use in a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times. Julian Koenig, the New York advertising executive who designed the ad for free, proposed Earth Day (his favorite) along with numerous other candidate names (Environment Day, Ecology Day, E Day) in other mockups of the ad. The ad, headlined "Earth Day: The Beginning," elicited enormous attention in the media.

Having watched other social movements of the 1960s grow exclusionary with the passage of time, Earth Day's organizers explicitly set out to engage the huge middle class that they saw as the fulcrum of American politics. They reached out to labor (organized labor was the largest source of financial support for Earth Day); K–12 education groups (NEA, AFT, and NSTA); civic and religious groups; and national associations of zoos, museums, and libraries. They took special care to cultivate strong relationships with women's groups such as the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, PTAs, garden clubs, and the scouts. All were approached and urged to mobilize their huge networks of members across the country.

As the New York Times described the resulting campaign: "Conservatives were for it. Liberals were for it. Democrats, Republicans and independents were for it. So were the ins, the outs, the Executive and Legislative branches of government."

As the Earth Day campaign grew, an enormous range of issues emerged from the grassroots . These included health-damaging levels of air pollution, the misuse of pesticides (raised earlier by Rachel Carson in her landmark book, Silent Spring ), freeways cutting through vibrant urban neighborhoods, defoliation resulting from the use of mutagenic herbicides in Vietnam, the explosive growth of the human population, the flushing of raw sewage and industrial wastes into the nation's rivers and the Great Lakes, massive clear cutting of the national forests, the environmental impacts of a proposed new supersonic airliner (the SST), and others. To tie all these complex issues together, Earth Day's organizers urged that the lessons of ecology—the study of the interrelationship of all creatures with their environment—be employed to create sustainable human environments.

Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from republicans and democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. The size and coverage of Earth Day led President Richard Nixon (who was no fan of the environmental movement, but who expected Senator Ed Muskie, an environmental leader, to be his opponent in the 1972 election) to propose the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The tough Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed with only a handful of dissenting votes in both houses of Congress. Seven of a "Dirty Dozen" congressmen—so designated by the Earth Day organizers—were defeated in the 1970 elections. The military was forced to halt the use of mutagenic defoliants in Southeast Asia. Development of the SST was halted. The Federal Occupational Health and Safety Act aimed at "in-plant pollution" was passed by a coalition of labor and environmental groups. Within the next few years, such landmarks as the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act were passed by wide margins.

Seldom, if ever, has a new issue so broadly and swiftly permeated the nation. Within a couple of years, the environment was influencing almost every aspect of American business, politics, law, education, culture, and lifestyle.

As 1990 approached, and again before 2000, environmental leaders asked Denis Hayes to organize anniversary campaigns. In 1990 Earth Day turned its attention overseas, ultimately catalyzing events in 141 countries. Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro—the largest gathering of heads of state in history.

An estimated 200 million participants in 184 nations took part in Earth Day 2000, which included the first national environmental campaign in the history of China. Earth Day 2000 focused on global warming and low-carbon energy alternatives. It helped create worldwide political support to implement the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 2001 over the strong opposition of the first Bush administration.

Earth Day has evolved into the first global secular holiday. Much as Americans use the occasion of Labor Day, Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Day, and other holidays to reflect on important issues, people everywhere now take time each April 22 to reflect on the health of the planet, and to ask what they can do in their jobs and their lives to improve it. A coordinating body, the Earth Day Network, promotes and coordinates activities among thousands of participating organizations from every corner of the planet.



Hayes, Denis. (2000). The Official Guide to Planet Repair. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Mowrey, Marc, and Redmond, Tim. (1993). Not in Our Backyard: The People and Events That Shaped America's Modern Environmental Movement. New York: William Morrow & Co.

Internet Resource

The Earth Day Network Web site. Available from .

Denis Hayes

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

Earth Day forum