Contrary to popular belief, not everything in the 1970s was about disco fever. Indeed, looking back on this crazy decade, you might be surprised just how green it was. That’s right, the birth of the eco-conscious movement owes a great deal to the accomplishments in the 1970s. Arguably, one of the defining moments in this decade was the establishment of Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
Although all Americans have heard of this annual holiday, few know the fascinating backstory behind its creation. To commemorate Earth Day’s 50th birthday, let’s review the tale behind this gloriously green holiday.
How An Oil Spill Helped Create Earth Day
The two lawmakers that deserve the most credit for creating Earth Day include Senator Gaylord Nelson and Congressman Pete McCloskey. Both of these eco-conscious legislators were searching for a way to use the radical teaching techniques of the 1960s to raise awareness of environmental challenges. The most direct impetus for their efforts was the devastating 1969 oil spill in the Santa Barbara Canal.
After news of the Santa Barbara oil spill broke, Nelson and McCloskey worked feverishly to make their “eco-consciousness class” a reality. This one-day, educational class was modeled on the “teach-in” movement that was becoming increasingly common during the Vietnam War. The two lawmakers—plus environmentalist Denis Hayes— focused their efforts on teaching college students about environmental issues.
Interestingly, Earth Day organizers chose the date April 22 to accommodate students’ (short) attention spans. According to Earth Day’s official website, this day was long after Spring Break, but it was also well before Final Exams. Therefore, students were more likely to pay attention rather than plan holidays or fret over Finals.
So, Was The First Earth Day A Success?
The first Earth Day celebration grew far larger than anyone could’ve expected. In addition to college students, many faith-based groups and community organizations decided to support this experimental education session. It’s estimated at least 20 million Americans took part in the first Earth Day by attending teach-in sessions and rallying on the streets for environmental change.
As everyday Americans spoke out against issues like pollution and nuclear power, more lawmakers took notice. In fact, the 1970 Earth Day celebration was a significant impetus for creating the Environmental Protection Agency. In the ensuing years, more eco-friendly bills like the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act were signed into law, bringing environmentalism into mainstream discourse.
How Far Did The Earth Day Network Expand?
For the first two decades of its existence, Earth Day was only an American holiday. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Denis Hayes began working on bringing Earth Day to the rest of the world. In 1990, over 140 countries officially adopted Earth Day as an annual holiday. Two years later, the UN decided to put together its first Earth Summit to help global leaders figure out eco-friendly policies.
Throughout the ensuing decades, Hayes worked hard to bring more nations into the Earth Day Network. It’s now estimated that over 190 countries recognize Earth Day, making this one of the world’s most widely celebrated non-religious holidays.
50 Years Later, Earth Day Is Still Revolutionary!
Although disco balls have dimmed, the impact of the environmental movement is still alive and kicking. In fact, a recent Pew Research study found that 75 percent of Americans place a great deal of concern on environmental issues. The EPA also claims Americans recycled roughly 67 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2017. Many of the Earth Day Network’s goals today focus on raising awareness of the Global Warming Crisis.
For more info on Earth Day’s past and present, be sure to visit Earth Day Network’s official website at earthday.org.