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What is Earth Day and why is it celebrated today, 22 April?

Over 40 years ago an environmental disaster got the ball rolling to create an event that would finally address an issue so important as our environment.

Over 40 years ago an environmental disaster got the ball rolling to create an event that would finally address an issue so important as our environment.
Peru's shamans perform a traditional ritual and make an offer to "Pachamama" (Mother Earth) on the eve of "Earth Day", in Lima, Peru April 21, 2023.

The first Earth Day was celebrated 22 April, 1970 by over 20 million people. It was the culmination of efforts led by a Wisconsin US Senator with the help of a congressional colleague and a young activist. The roots of Earth Day go further back though, with people trying to raise awareness and concern for the environment around us and the living creatures that share it with us. As well the inextricable links between pollution and public health.

Who started Earth Day?

Although there were others who proposed similar ideas the Earth Day, as we know it, was the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin who had a lifelong love of nature. A massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969 spurred him into action. He wanted to use the energy of student anti-war protests to harness the growing public consciousness about pollution in the air and water through an organized “nationwide environmental teach-in” on college campuses.

He enlisted the help of a Pete McCloskey, a US Representative from California, to co-chair the event. The two lawmakers recruited a young activist Denis Haynes who gave the event its name Earth Day. They chose 22 April for maximum impact and participation as it was a weekday and fell between spring break and final exams.

With a staff of 85 people, Hayes and his team brought together disparate groups and promoted the event. The first Earth Day was a spectacular success, around 10 percent of the US population, or about 20 million Americans, took to the streets to protest against the deterioration of the environment and the impacts of industrial development.

Earth Day has now grown into an international event. Over 1 billion people participate each year in 193 countries. It is considered the largest secular observance in the world.

Why was Earth Day created?

Some of the forces that helped propel awareness that the environment was in trouble came from other voices and events prior to 1970. It was common for the oily sludge on rivers to catch fire but when the Cuyahoga River which flows into Lake Erie burned in 1969 people finally realized something needed to be done. The river had burned many times before, and the fire of 1952 caused far more damage but an article in Time magazine helped to spur action.

An earlier watershed moment was in 1962, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a world that had been largely oblivious to the degradation of the land, air and water began to take note. The New York Times bestseller sold more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries and greatly increased awareness of the interconnectedness of pollution and well-being of humans and animals alike.

While searching for the true age of the solar system, Clair Patterson a geochemist realized that the use of lead in everday items, especailly in leaded gasoline, was contaminating our environment and food chain. He published a paper on his findings in 1965 to try to draw attention to the problem but the industry tried to create sckepticism about his work. He pushed to have lead removed and starting in 1975 all new model cars were mandated to use unleaded gasoline. By the 1990′s lead levels within the blood of Americans dropped by up to 80%.

Prior to the first Earth Day, students at San Jose State College on 20 February, 1970 held the short-lived ecology extravaganza, the Survival Faire. For the event a group of students buried a brand-new, never-started Ford Maverick they had bought. So that the car would not pollute during its short life, they pushed it from the dealer’s lot to a 12-foot-deep pit in the center of campus and held a ceremony to lay it to rest.

What do people do on Earth Day?

On Earth Day, people around the world participate in various activities to raise awareness about environmental issues and take action to protect the planet. Some common Earth Day activities include:

  • Planting trees: Many people participate in tree-planting events to help reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and create new habitats for wildlife.
  • Cleaning up litter: Plenty of people get involved in community clean-up events to remove trash from parks, beaches, and other natural areas.
  • Educating others: Many organizations use Earth Day as an opportunity to provide education about environmental issues and encourage others to take action to protect the planet.
  • Advocating for policy change: Some groups use Earth Day as a platform to advocate for changes in government policy to protect the environment.
  • Hosting events: Many communities host events such as environmental fairs, concerts, and film screenings to celebrate Earth Day and raise awareness about environmental issues.

While Earth Day activities are similar across many countries, there may be some variations based on local environmental concerns and cultural practices. For example, in some countries, Earth Day events may focus on issues such as water scarcity or air pollution, while in others, events may highlight issues related to deforestation or wildlife conservation. Additionally, the types of activities and events held may vary based on local traditions and customs.


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