Photo of the Earth. Source = http://www.nasa.gov.
Created by Shannon Stanley, History 135, August 2004
Assignment || Background || Timeline || Related Web Sites || Recommended Books || Related Media Articles || Related Topics


Compare the original purpose of Earth Day 1970 to the focus on environmental issues since then.  What has the Earth Day celebration done to make government and citizens look closer at the health of the planet Earth?


Photo of a Gaylord Nelson outside the Washington Capitol. Source = http://earthday.wilderness.org/history/. Earth Day was the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson (D - WI, 1963-1981). Sparked by severe air and water pollution, which became overwhelmingly apparent through events such as the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969, Nelson thought to organize a grassroots protest about what was happening to the environment. After hiring Harvard Graduate student Denis Hayes to coordinate the event, Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970.

Like many others, Senator Nelson was greatly affected by Silent Spring, the book by Rachel Carson, which called attention to the threat of toxic chemicals on people and the environment. The book helped to awaken people to the effect they were having on the environment and the dangers they were posing to themselves. During the 1960s more research took place, additional books were published, and experts finally began meeting to discuss global environmental problems including pollution, resource loss, and wetlands destruction. People began to share concern for the environment. An environmental movement was taking shape, but it needed help.

Since the release of Carson's book in 1962, Senator Nelson had been troubled by the fact that environmental issues were of concern to the American people, but were not registering with politicians. Inspired by the anti-Vietnam demonstrations of the time, Nelson figured out a way to thrust the environment into the political limelight—protest.

By September of 1969, plans were in motion for this unprecedented event. Nelson and Hayes had organized a staff of college students, who had begun reaching out to schools, colleges, churches, civic organizations, businesses, and laborers to rally support for the event. Word began to spread, as people were finally about to have a forum on which they could voice their concerns about the state of the planet.

Although Nelson and his staff were sure the event was going to be a success, nothing could have prepared them for the overwhelming participation exhibited on the first Earth Day. On that Wednesday in April 1970, Congress adjourned so members could return to their home states and listen to their constituents. Fifth Avenue in New York City closed to automobiles so thousands could join in concerts, lectures, and other street fare in support of the environment.

In all, 20 million people came together on April 22, 1970 to demonstrate on behalf of the environment. People who thought they had nothing in common were able to find shared values in their desire to help the planet. It was called the largest demonstration in human history, and it continues to draw millions as the day is celebrated year after year across the world.

Following, and no less in major part to, the first Earth Day, Congress passed the Clean Air Act to regulate air emissions; Clean Water Act to control water pollution; Endangered Species Act to conserve threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitats in which they are found; and Superfund, which allowed the Federal Government to tax those in the chemical and petroleum industries who released or threatened to release hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment. Additionally, President Nixon created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect human health and the environment. All of these measures were major steps in helping to preserve the environment for generations to come. The people had spoken, and the politicians listened.

After more than 30 years, Earth Day continues to gain popularity across the world. It allows citizens of Earth to take one day and focus on what we are doing to our planet and how we can improve the way we treat our precious earth.


1963 - Congress passed the original Clean Air Act.

1969 - An oil slick on the Cuyahoga River caught fire and drew national attention to clean water issues.

1970 - Twenty million people celebrated the first Earth Day.

1970 - President Richard Nixon created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with a mission to protect the environment and public health.

1971 - Congress restricted the use of lead-based paint in residences and on cribs and toys.

1972 - EPA banned the popular pesticide DDT, and required a review of all other pesticides.

1972 - Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which limited the flow of raw sewage and other pollutants into rivers, lakes, and streams.

1973 - Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil embargo triggered an energy crisis, which stimulated conservation and research on alternative energy sources.

1974 - Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, which allowed EPA to regulate the quality of public drinking water.

1975 - Congress established fuel economy standards and set tail-pipe emission standards for cars, which resulted in the introduction of catalytic converters.

1976 - Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulated hazardous waste from cradle to grave.

1979 - A nuclear accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This event increased awareness and discussion about nuclear power safety.

1980 - Congress created Superfund to make polluters responsible for cleaning up hazardous waste sites.

1985 - Scientists reported that a giant hole in the earth’s ozone layer opened each spring over Antarctica.

1987 - The United States signed the Montreal Protocol, a pledge to phase-out production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

1989 - Exxon Valdez spilt 11 million gallons of crude oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

1990 - President George Bush signed the Pollution Prevention Act, which emphasized the importance of preventing—not just correcting—environmental damage, and the National Environmental Education Act, which signified the importance of educating the public to ensure scientifically sound, balanced, and responsible decisions about the environment.

1990 - The first International Earth Day took place.

1992 - EPA launched the ENERGY STAR® Program to help consumers identify energy-efficient products.

1993 - President Bill Clinton directed the federal government to use its $200 billion annual purchasing power to buy recycled and environmentally preferable products.

1996 - President Bill Clinton signed the Food Quality Protection Act to tighten standards for pesticides used to grow food, with special protections to ensure that foods are safe for children to eat.

1998 - President Bill Clinton announced the Clean Water Action Plan to continue making America’s waterways safe for fishing and swimming.

2000 - The 30th Anniversary of Earth Day was celebrated across the world and culminated in an event on the Washington Mall.

2003 - Clear Skies legislation and alternative regulations were proposed to create a cap and trade system to reduce SO2 emissions by 70 percent and NOx emissions by 65 percent below 2003 levels.

2004 - President George W. Bush and Democratic Candidate John Kerry used the last Earth Day before the Presidential election to share their environmental initiatives.

Related Web Sites

Earth Day Network - International Earth Day Resources.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Earth Day Site - Information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on how to celebrate Earth Day at home, work, or in the classroom.

Envirolink - The Online Environmental Community Earth Day Home - This online clearinghouse for environmental information shares the history of Earth Day, an organizers guide, and an Earth Day event calendar.

www.epa.gov/earthday/ - A portal for U.S. government events and information

Grist Magazine - Daily environmental news with a sense of humor.

Major Environmental Laws - This Environmental Protection Agency site offers links to the text of many major environmental statutes or laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.

National Resources Defense Council Global Warming Site - Offers brief or in depth descriptions of global warming

Earth Day events for the year are listed at earthday.envirolink.org/.

Also see Earth Day Canada www.earthday.ca/pub/ and International Earth Day www.earthsite.org/.


Environmental Defense Fund - An organization dedicated to protecting human health, restoring our oceans and ecosystems, and curbing global warming.

Friends of the Earth - A network of environmental groups that defend the environment and champion a healthy and just world.

Greenpeace - A global organization that focuses on the most crucial worldwide threats to our planet's biodiversity and environment.

National Audubon Society - Conserves and restores natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity.

National Wildlife Federation - The Nation's largest and oldest protector of wildlife, committed to educating and empowering people to protect wildlife and habitat for future generations.

The Nature Conservancy - Organization aimed at preserving the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.

The Sierra Club - America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

World Wildlife Fund - Information on endangered wildlife from a nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental conservation through science.

Earth Society Foundation

Recommended Books

Looking for more information on Earth Day? Or would you like to find out what you can do to help save the planet? Check out these reads:

The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair by Denis Hayes. Describes some of the major environmental problems facing our planet today, and offers suggestions readers can follow to reduce their own environmental footprint.

Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise by Gaylord Nelson. Written by the founder of Earth Day, this book explores current environmental issues, and calls for a renewed effort to keep these issues visible through education and their solutions possible through action.

The Man from Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson by Bill Christofferson. A biography of Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day.

The Morning After Earth Day: Practical Environmental Politics by Mary Graham. This book analyzes the environmental problems facing our planet from before the first Earth Day in 1970 to today and looks at what problems we could face in the future without proper intervention.


Let's Celebrate Earth Day by Pete Roop. Kids can learn about the history of Earth Day in this illustrated book.

Earth Day—Hooray! by Stuart J. Murphy. Read how the Maple Street School's Save the Planet Club decides to celebrate Earth Day.

Every Day is Earth Day by Kathy Ross and Sharon Lane Holm. This book suggests a number of earth-friendly crafts children can create while learning about Earth Day.

Related Media Articles

Bush, Kerry Make Earth Day Pitches (April 22, 2004, MSNBC.COM) Covers speeches by the President and his democratic challenger on the 34th Earth Day.

What We Have Learned Since Earth Day 1970 (April 14, 1999, by John A. Braden, The Bridge News) Challenges the ideas behind the first Earth Day.

Is Earth Day April 22? (April 1999, by John McConnell, NatureNode) Introduces the idea that first Earth Day was actually March 21, 1970.

A narrative account of the origins of Earth Day by Gaylord Nelson www.nelsonearthday.net/

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