Why The First Earth Day Still Matters

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of April 22, 1970.
Why The First Earth Day Still Matters

Originally Published:
04 22 20

It was spring 1970. After the decade that saw the publishing of Silent Spring, a massive oil spill, and a burning river, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson saw an opportunity for change.

It wasn’t that people didn’t care about the environment already. At the time, groups around the country worked to protect farmworkers from DDT, change the laws around industrial pollution, increase our access to organic foods, and conserve lands for wildlife.

But the movements were disparate — according to organizer Denis Hayes, few of those organizers saw the possibility for a larger, all-encompassing environmental movement.

After the popular success of anti-war demonstrations on college campuses, Nelson believed the time was right to build a mass movement against rampant environmental destruction. He decided to organize Earth Day.

Cuyahoga river on fire in Ohio, USA

In 1969 the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio.
(Image via the Cleveland State University Library)


A Day of Action, Protests, Education & Political Pressure

Earth Day 1970 was actually more like Earth Spring. Six months ahead of the chosen April 22 date (Nelson was convinced this Wednesday in April would fall into the sweet spot between spring break and college finals), the senator began reaching out to environmental groups across the country.

A small staff of young people spread the word about a teach-in event to be held on college campuses, modeled after successful Vietnam War protests. Soon, it became clear that the activists could reach wider than the progressive youth they originally targeted.

United Auto Workers contributed money for a phone line, and calls were made to cities and towns across the country. Soon, local organizers were recruited and events were planned in parks, in libraries, in schools, and even on PBS television programs including Sesame Street. Planned speakers included scientists, outdoor enthusiasts, mothers, veterans, conservationists, indigenous people, and even businessmen.

On April 22nd, 1970, demonstrations began across the country. 1500 college campuses held events, often programmed over the course of the week. Sit ins, boycotts, cleanups, lectures, town halls, panels, and marches took place concurrently.

The front page of the New York Times, the cover of Time Magazine, and every news network put the spotlight on the movement.

Denis Hayes organizing Earth Day 1970.
New York environmental and climate change protests in 1970

Left: Dennis Hayes (front), one of the key organizers of Earth Day 1970.
Right: A
packed 5th Avenue in New York City. An estimated 20 million people turned out for events across the country.

A Stunning 10% of Americans Came Out to Support Earth Day 1970

It is remarkable how coverage of the event 50 years ago drew the connection between the everyday environmental concerns — like pollution and reliance on fossil fuels — and their cumulative impact on global warming.

20 million people turned out, about a tenth of the US population at the time. It was an unprecedented sense of unity that drove the participation of a broad coalition of participants: liberals, socialists, and conservatives all took part in the
group action.

A Lasting Impact