A Brief History of Earth Day

Includes videos


Donning a gas mask, a demonstrator participates in the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. (AP)

Quick quiz:

1. Which labor organization helped fund and organize the first Earth Day celebration?

2. Who said this:

“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions … It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they, more than we, will wreak the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.”

Keep reading for answers.

Rivers on fire

Our planet these days needs all the love it can get. From the increasingly severe impacts of climate change and overpopulation to rapid deforestation and mass extinctions, we face a mounting number of potentially catastrophic environmental crises. Despite such urgency, environmental regulation has become staunchly divisive in Washington, where attempts at passing legislation is considered politically risky, and efforts to address some of the most pressing challenges — like climate change  — have been thwarted.  

For what it’s worth, though, the environmental outlook in the late 1960s wasn’t too rosy either.

After decades of industrial and economic growth in the absence of strong environmental laws, America had managed to majorly muck up its air and water resources. Toxic effluent from factories frequently spilled into streams and rivers and open spaces became dumping grounds. DDT and other synthetic chemicals contaminated habitats and water supplies. And air pollution from factories and belching cars left many industrial areas shrouded in thick blankets of smog.

This is just a handful of the environmental nightmares that occurred in an alarmingly short period of time:

• November 1966: In New York City, 168 people die of respiratory-related illnesses over a 3-day period due primarily to horrendously poor air quality.

• March 1967: Interior Department Secretary Stewart L. Udall, announces the first official list of endangered wildlife species. 78 species are on it, including America’s national bird: the Bald Eagle.

• January 1969: A blowout at an offshore oil rig near Santa Barbara spills upwards of 10,000 gallons of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel and onto nearby beaches for 10 straight days. It is, at that point, the largest oil spill in American history (it now only ranks third, overtaken by the 1989 Exxon Valdez and 2010 Deepwater Horizon spills).

• June 1969: A particularly fetid industrial stretch of the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland bursts into flames (seriously) when oil-soaked debris in the water is ignited by sparks from a passing train.

A movement begins

While urban unrest and the anti-war movement ignited across the nation, environmental activism had yet to gain a strong foothold.

“If the people really understood that in the lifetime of their children, they’re going to have destroyed the quality of the air and the water all over the world and perhaps made the globe unlivable in a half century, they’d do something about it. But this is not well understood.”

That’s a quote from Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who in the aftermath of these disasters, spearheaded a national day of environmental awareness.

Denis Hayes in the Earth Day campaign office (Courtesy of AP)

Nelson formed a bipartisan congressional steering committee and enlisted Denis Hayes, a 25-year-old Harvard Law School dropout, to coordinate the undertaking. Influenced by the Vietnam protest model, Hayes sought to organize environmental teach-ins throughout the nation to take place during a single day: April 22, 1970.

[Interestingly, an independent Earth Day effort had earlier been proposed by peace activist John McConnell during a 1969 UNESCO conference in San Francisco. McConnell reserved the date of March 21, 1970 — the first day of spring — a month prior to Hayes’ event.]

With a limited budget and no email or Internet access (didn’t exist yet), Hayes and a small group of organizers mailed out thousands of appeals, recruiting mostly young volunteers to organize local events in communities and campuses across the country.

On November 30, 1969, the New York Times reported:

“Rising concern about the ‘environmental crisis’ is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam.”

Interviewed in the recent PBS documentary Earth Days, Hayes recalled the sentiment:

“Lord knows what we thought we were doing. It was wild and exciting and out of control and the sort of thing that lets you know you’ve really got something big happening … What we were trying to do was create a brand new public consciousness that would cause the rules of the game to change.”

In the end, nearly 20 million people participated in that first Earth Day, according to organizers’ estimates. It marked the single largest demonstration in U.S. history.

[Read the NY Times article from April 22, 1970]

A rally in Philadelphia during the first Earth Day celebration (AP)

“It was a huge high adrenaline effort that in the end genuinely changed things,” Hayes said. “Before (that), there were people that opposed freeways, people that opposed clear-cutting, or people worried about pesticides, (but) they didn’t think of themselves as having anything in common. After Earth Day they were all part of an environmental movement.”

On Earth Day the following year, an independent group launched an anti-litter public service announcement, known as the “Crying Indian” that featured a man in headdress, rowing a birch bark canoe, who sheds a tear upon witnessing garbage strewn everywhere. Nevermind that the actor wasn’t actually Indian and the premise culturally questionable, the commercial was enormously popular and is still considered one of the most successful PSAs of all time.

Surprising allegiances

That brings us back to the first question of the quiz. The group most supportive of the first Earth Day organizing effort — financially and otherwise — was none other than the United Auto Workers.

A labor union not generally known today for championing environmental causes, the UAW donated funds and turned out volunteers across the country.

UAW President Walter Reuther pledged his union’s full support for Earth Day and for subsequent air quality legislation that the auto industry staunchly opposed.

“What good is a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighborhood is burning down,” he said. “What good is another week’s vacation if the lake you used to go to is polluted and you can’t swim in it and the kids can’t play in it?

Soon thereafter, sensing the political shift, General Motors’ president Edward Cole promised “pollution free” cars by 1980 (that didn’t pan out so well).

The golden era of environmental regulation

Remember the mystery quote at the beginning … that was President Richard Nixon during his 1970 State of the Union address.

Yes, that Nixon, the conservative Republican most commonly remembered for prolonging America’s involvement in Vietnam and resigning in disgrace over the Watergate scandal.

Less known however, Nixon also oversaw and approved the most sweeping environmental regulations in the nation’s history.

Even before the first Earth Day, Congress passed and Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which among other things, required environmental impact statements for major new building projects and developments. Nixon signed it into law on January 1, 1970.

Environmentalism had never been one of Nixon’s major political priorities, but his administration — like the UAW — recognized the shifting political tide, as public outcry and media attention on environmental issues increased. Pushing forward new regulations had become a politically prudent action to take.

Within months, Nixon approved the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Later that year, he signed an extension of the Clean Air Act, requiring the newly formed EPA to create and enforce clean air regulations, that among other things, led to the installation of catalytic converters on all cars sold in the United States.

By the end of 1972, Nixon signed the Clean Water Act, the Pesticide Control Act (which banned DDT) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. A year later, he also signed the Endangered Species Act and the Safe Water Drinking Act.

Most of these bills were approved with bipartisan support in Congress, in some cases with near unanimity.

In a televised speech in 1972, Nixon said:

“We are taking these actions not in some distant future, but now, because we know that it is now or never.”

Environmental conditions in the United States began to slowly improve. Which is not to say there weren’t voices of strong political opposition and major lingering problems, But for a time — stretching through the Ford and Carter administrations —  environmentalism maintained a strong level of bipartisanship support. In the last year of his presidency, Carter even installed solar panels on the roof of White House to promote his renewable energy initiatives.

The end of the green honeymoon

And then the political climate abruptly changed. In 1981, a year into his first term, President Ronald Reagan, who had been widely derided for claiming that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do,” appointed two aggressive defenders of industry to head the EPA and the Department of the Interior. As part of the “Reagan Revolution,” the Administration moved rapidly to slash budgets, cutting the EPA’s by nearly half. Environmental enforcement was weakened considerably, as large swaths of public land were open for mining, drilling, grazing and other private uses. During Reagan’s second term, the solar panels on the White House roof were dismantled.

To be fair, a number of significant environmental policies were advanced during Reagan’s Administration, including the Superfund program to clean up hazardous waste sites, the creation of wilderness areas, and the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of substances responsible for its depletion.

But the anti-regulatory sentiment established during Reagan’s presidency took root. Efforts to strengthen the nation’s environmental protection laws grew increasingly partisan, a trend that continues today, in which environmental legislation is typically split sharply along party lines. The stream of regulatory measures approved by Nixon four decades ago would have scant chance of passing Congress today.

The benefit of tangible problems

Organizers of the first Earth Day had a key advantage: they were trying to tackle visible, tangible problems that impacted people’s daily lives. Kids couldn’t swim in public lakes and rivers because they were too polluted; parks were strewn with trash; people were getting sick from pollution in the air. It made it a lot easier to draw a clear connection between quality of life and the urgent need for strong environmental protections.

In contrast, many of today’s major environmental concerns, like climate change, while perhaps even more threatening, are also more abstract, making it far more challenging to convey the sense of urgency that’s often necessary to mobilize the masses and pressure lawmakers to act. The United States, one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, refused to sign-on to Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty approved by 180 nations requiring rapid cuts in emissions. Congress’ last attempt at climate change legislation — in 2010 — failed, and there’s little expectation that action will be taken anytime soon.

Which begs the ominous question: what degree of disaster will be strong enough to incite a new era of environmental change?

  • Skip Conrad

    What about the connection between Lenin’s birthday and earth day. This was the people cleaned their homes in the Soviet Union. It shares many of the same earthday themes.

  • Ron Butler

    “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support… the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution… by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half…”

    Life Magazine, January 1970

  • Joyce Clemons

    “If I were reincarnated I would wish to be returned to earth as a killer virus to lower human population levels.”

    ― H.R.H. Prince Philip

  • Joyce Clemons

    U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg….

    “Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”

  • Joyce Clemons

    Dave Foreman, Earth First Co-Founder….

    “My three main goals would be to reduce human population to about 100 million worldwide, destroy the industrial infrastructure and see wilderness, with it’s full complement of species, returning throughout the world.”

  • Joyce Clemons

    Princeton philosopher Peter Singer….

    “So why don’t we make ourselves the last generation on earth? If we would all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices would be required — we could party our way into extinction!”

  • Order_of_the_Coitus

    Note: Denis Hayes was a law school dropout who accomplished something great.

    Nelson formed a bipartisan congressional steering committee and enlisted Denis Hayes, a 25-year-old Harvard Law School dropout, to coordinate the undertaking.

    Law school is a scam!!!!! DO NOT go unless $200,000+ in non-dischargeable student loan debt, no job, and living in your parents’ basement is your idea of fun. It’s a scam set up to make law administrators and professors wealthy off your federal government loans.

  • Jay

    Interesting-no mention of the Global Cooling crisis that was anticipated in late 60’s an dearly 70’s that was to bring on another Ice Age.