Earth Day is a day early each year on which events are held worldwide to increase awareness and appreciation of the Earth’s natural environment. Earth Day is now coordinated globally by the Earth Day Network, and is celebrated in more than 175 countries every year. In 2009, the United Nations designated April 22 International Mother Earth Day. Earth Day is planned for April 22 in all years at least through 2015.
The name and concept of Earth Day was allegedly pioneered by John McConnell in 1969 at a UNESCO Conference in San Francisco. The first Proclamation of Earth Day was by San Francisco, the City of Saint Francis, patron saint of ecology. Earth Day was first observed in San Francisco and other cities on March 21, 1970, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. This day of nature’s equipoise was later sanctioned in a Proclamation signed by Secretary General U Thant at the United Nations where it is observed each year. About the same time a separate Earth Day was founded by United States Senator Gaylord Nelson as an environmental teach-in first held on April 22, 1970. While this April 22 Earth Day was focused on the United States, an organization launched by Denis Hayes, who was the original national coordinator in 1970, took it international in 1990 and organized events in 141 nations. Numerous communities celebrate Earth Week, an entire week of activities focused on environmental issues.
The 1970 April 22 Earth Day
Gaylord Nelson, a United States Senator from Wisconsin, called for an environmental teach-in, or Earth Day, to be held on April 22, 1970. Over 20 million people participated that year, and this Earth Day is now observed on April 22 each year by more than 500 million people and several national governments in 175 countries. Numerous communities celebrate Earth Week, an entire week of activities focused on environmental issues.
Senator Nelson, an environmental activist, took a leading role in organizing the celebration, hoping to demonstrate popular political support for an environmental agenda. He modeled it on the highly effective Vietnam War teach-ins of the time. Earth Day was first proposed in a prospectus to JFK written by Fred Dutton. However, Nelson decided against much of Dutton’s top-down approach, favoring a decentralized, grassroots effort in which each community shaped their action around local concerns.
Nelson had conceived the idea for his environmental teach-in following a trip he took to Santa Barbara right after the horrific oil spill off the coast in 1969. Outraged by the devastation and Washington political inertia, Nelson proposed a national teach-in on the environment to be observed by every university campus in the U.S.
I am convinced that all we need to do to bring an overwhelming insistence of the new generation that we stem the tide of environmental disaster is to present the facts clearly and dramatically. To marshal such an effort, I am proposing a national teach-in on the crisis of the environment to be held next spring on every university campus across the Nation. The crisis is so imminent, in my opinion, that every university should set aside 1 day in the school year-the same day across the Nation-for the teach-in.
One of the organizers of the event said:
“We’re going to be focusing an enormous amount of public interest on a whole, wide range of environmental events, hopefully in such a manner that it’s going to be drawing the interrelationships between them and, getting people to look at the whole thing as one consistent kind of picture, a picture of a society that’s rapidly going in the wrong direction that has to be stopped and turned around.
“It’s going to be an enormous affair, I think. We have groups operating now in about 12,000 high schools, 2,000 colleges and universities and a couple of thousand other community groups. It’s safe to say I think that the number of people who will be participating in one way or another is going to be ranging in the millions.”
Nelson announced his idea for a nationwide teach-in day on the environment in a speech to a fledgling conservation group in Seattle on September 20, 1969, and then again six days later in Atlantic City to a meeting of the United Auto Workers. Senator Nelson hoped that a grassroots outcry about environmental issues might prove to Washington, D.C. just how distressed Americans were in every constituency. Senator Nelson invited Republican Representative Paul N “Pete” McCloskey to serve as his co-chair and they incorporated a new non-profit organization, Environmental Teach-In, Inc., to stimulate participation across the country. Both continued to give speeches plugging the event.
On September 29, 1969, in a long, front-page New York Times article, Gladwin Hill wrote:
“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…a national day of observance of environmental problems, analogous to the mass demonstrations on Vietnam, is being planned for next spring, when a nationwide environmental ‘teach-in’…coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned….”
Denis Hayes, a Harvard graduate student, read the NYT article and traveled to Washington to get involved. He had been student body president and a campus activist at Stanford University in McCloskey’s district and where Teach-In board member Paul Ehrlich was a professor. He thought he might be asked to organize Boston. Instead, Nelson eventually asked Hayes to drop out of Harvard, assemble a staff, and direct the effort to organize the United States. Hayes would go on to become a widely recognized environmental advocate.
Hayes recruited a handful of young college graduates to come to Washington, D.C. and began to plan what would become the first April 22 Earth Day.
Nelson’s suggestion was difficult to implement, as the Earth Day movement proved to be autonomous with no central governing body. As Senator Nelson attests, it simply grew on its own:
Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.
The April 22, 1970, Earth Day marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement. Approximately 20 million Americans participated. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, Freeway and expressway revolts, the loss of wilderness, and air pollution suddenly realized they shared common values.
Media coverage of the first April 22 Earth Day included a One-Hour Prime-time CBS News Special Report called “Earth Day: A Question of Survival,” with correspondents reporting from a dozen major cities across the country, and narrated by Walter Cronkite (whose backdrop was the Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia’s logo).
Pete Seeger was a keynote speaker and performer at the event held in Washington DC. Paul Newman and Ali McGraw attended the event held in New York City.
Ira Einhorn, known as “The Unicorn Killer,” was on stage hosting the first Earth Day event at the Fairmount Park in Philadelphia on April 22, 1970.
Earth Day 1970 in New York City
In the winter of 1969-1970, a group of students met at Columbia University to hear Denis Hayes talk about his plans for Earth Day. Among the group were Fred Kent, Pete Grannis, and Kristin and William Hubbard. This New York group agreed to head up the New York City part of the national movement. Fred Kent took the lead in renting an office and recruiting volunteers. “The big break came when Mayor Lindsay agreed to shut down 5th Avenue for the event. A giant cheer went up in the office on that day,” according to Kristin Hubbard (now Kristin Alexandre). ‘From that time on we used Mayor Lindsay’s offices and even his staff. I was Speaker Coordinator but had tremendous help from Lindsay staffer Judith Crichton.”
In addition to shutting down Fifth Avenue, Mayor Lindsay made Central Park available for Earth Day. The crowd was estimated as more than one million—by far the largest in the nation. Since New York was also the home of NBC, CBS, ABC, the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek, it provided the best possible anchor for national coverage from their reporters all over the country
Earth Day 1970 in Philadelphia
Earth Day 1970 in Philadelphia gave birth to Earth Week, April 16–22. It was created by a committee of students (mostly from University of Pennsylvania), professionals, leaders of grass roots organizations and businessmen concerned about the environment and inspired by Senator Gaylord Nelson’s call for a national environmental teach-in. The Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia concluded that devoting only one day to the environment would not provide enough time and space to paint a comprehensive picture of the environmental issues confronting mankind. While all of their activities would build toward a climactic Earth Day celebration on April 22, there would also be an entire week of events in the week preceding.
Austan Librach, a regional planning graduate student, assumed the role of Committee Chairman and hired Edward Furia, who had just received his City Planning and Law Degrees from University of Pennsylvania, to be Project Director. Ira Einhorn was the master of ceremonies for the event. The core group from Penn was joined in 1970 by students from other area colleges which, working together, organized scores of educational activities, scientific symposia and major mass media events in the Delaware Valley Region in and around Philadelphia. The Earth Week Committee of 33 members settled on a common objective—to raise public awareness of environmental problems and their potential solutions.
U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie was the keynote speaker on Earth Day in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Other notable attendees included consumer protection activist and presidential candidate Ralph Nader; Landscape Architect Ian McHarg; Nobel prize-winning Harvard Biochemist, George Wald; U.S. Senate Minority Leader, Hugh Scott; and poet, Allen Ginsberg. Forty years later, the Earth Week Committee decided to make rare photos, video and other previously unpublished information about the history of Earth Week 1970 available to the public at EarthWeek.us.
Many cities now extend the observance of Earth Day events to an entire week, usually starting on April 16 and ending on Earth Day, April 22. These events are designed to encourage environmentally aware behaviors, such as recycling, using energy efficiently, and reducing or reusing disposable items
Results of Earth Day 1970
Earth Day proved popular in the United States and around the world. The first April 22 Earth Day had participants and celebrants in two thousand colleges and universities, roughly ten thousand primary and secondary schools, and hundreds of communities across the United States. More importantly, it “brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favor of environmental reform.”
Senator Nelson stated that Earth Day “worked” because of the response at the grassroots level. Twenty-million demonstrators and thousands of schools and local communities participated. He directly credited the first Earth Day with persuading U.S. politicians that environmental legislation had a substantial, lasting constituency.
It is now observed in 175 countries, and coordinated by the nonprofit Earth Day Network, according to whom Earth Day is now “the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a half billion people every year.” Environmental groups have sought to make Earth Day into a day of action which changes human behavior and provokes policy changes
Earth Day 20 and Earth Day 1990
Mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries and lifting the status of environmental issues onto the world stage, Earth Day activities in 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Unlike the first Earth Day in 1970, this 20th Anniversary was waged with stronger marketing tools, greater access to television and radio, and multimillion-dollar budgets.
Two separate groups formed to sponsor Earth Day events in 1990: The Earth Day 20 Foundation, assembled by Edward Furia (Project Director of Earth Week in 1970), and Earth Day 1990, assembled by Denis Hayes (National Coordinator for Earth Day 1970). Senator Gaylord Nelson, the original founder of Earth Day, was honorary chairman for both groups. The two did not combine forces over disagreements about leadership of combined organization and incompatible structures and strategies. Among the disagreements, key Earth Day 20 Foundation organizers were critical of Earth Day 1990 for including on their board Hewlett Packard, a company that at the time was the second-biggest emitter of chlorofluorocarbons in Silicon Valley and refused to switch to alternative solvents. In terms of marketing, Earth Day 20 had a grassroots approach to organizing and relied largely on locally based groups like the National Toxics Campaign, a Boston-based coalition of 1,000 local groups concerned with industrial pollution. Earth Day 1990 employed strategies including focus group testing, direct mail fund raising, and email marketing.
The Earth Day 20 Foundation highlighted its April 22 activities in George, Washington, near the Columbia River with a live satellite phone call with members of the historic Earth Day 20 International Peace Climb who called from their base camp on Mount Everest to pledge their support for world peace and attention to environmental issues. The Earth Day 20 International Peace Climb was led by Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest (many years earlier), and marked the first time in history that mountaineers from the United States, Soviet Union and China had roped together to climb a mountain, let alone Mt. Everest. The group also collected over two tons of trash (transported down the mountain by support groups along the way) that was left behind on Mount Everest from previous climbing expeditions. The master of ceremonies for the Columbia Gorge event was the TV star, John Ratzenberger, from “Cheers”, and the headlining musician was the “Father of Rock and Roll,” Chuck Berry
Earth Day 2000
Earth Day 2000 combined the ambitious spirit of the first Earth Day with the international grassroots activism of Earth Day 1990. This was the first year that Earth Day used the Internet as its principal organizing tool, and it proved invaluable domestically and internationally. Kelly Evans, a professional political organizer, served as Executive Director of the 2000 campaign. The event ultimately enlisted more than 5,000 environmental groups outside the United States, reaching hundreds of millions of people in a record 183 countries. Leonardo DiCaprio was the official host for the event, and about 400,000 participants stood in the cold rain during the course of the day.
Subsequent Earth Day events
To turn Earth Day into a sustainable annual event rather than one that occurred every 10 years, Senator Nelson and Bruce Anderson, New Hampshire’s lead organizer in 1990, formed Earth Day USA. Building on the momentum created by thousands of community organizers around the world, Earth Day USA coordinated the next five Earth Day celebrations through 1995, including the launch of EarthDay.org. Following the 25th Anniversary in 1995, the coordination baton was handed to Earth Day Network.
As the millennium approached, Hayes agreed to spearhead another campaign, this time focusing on global warming and pushing for clean energy. The April 22 Earth Day in 2000 combined the big-picture feistiness of the first Earth Day with the international grassroots activism of Earth Day 1990. For 2000, Earth Day had the Internet to help link activists around the world. By the time April 22 came around, 5,000 environmental groups around the world were on board, reaching out to hundreds of millions of people in a record 184 countries. Events varied: A talking drum chain traveled from village to village in Gabon, Africa, for example, while hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., USA.
Earth Day 2007 was one of the largest Earth Days to date, with an estimated billion people participating in the activities in thousands of places like Kiev, Ukraine; Caracas, Venezuela; Tuvalu; Manila, Philippines; Togo; Madrid, Spain; London; and New York.
The Earth Day name
According to Senator Nelson, the moniker “Earth Day” was “an obvious and logical name” suggested by “a number of people” in the fall of 1969, including, he writes, both “a friend of mine who had been in the field of public relations” and “a New York advertising executive,” Julian Koenig. Koenig, who had been on Nelson’s organizing committee in 1969, has said that the idea came to him by the coincidence of his birthday with the day selected, April 22; “Earth Day” rhyming with “birthday,” the connection seemed natural. Other names circulated during preparations—Nelson himself continued to call it the National Environment Teach-In, but press coverage of the event was “practically unanimous” in its use of “Earth Day,” so the name stuck.
Earth Day Network
Earth Day Network was founded by Denis Hayes and the organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970 and by other national organizers, including Pam Lippe, to promote environmental activism and year-round progressive action, domestically and internationally. Earth Day Network members include NGOs, quasi-governmental agencies, local governments, activists, and others. Earth Day Network members focus on environmental education; local, national, and global policies; public environmental campaigns; and organizing national and local earth day events to promote activism and environmental protection. The international network reaches over 19,000 organizations in 192 countries, while the domestic program engages 10,000 groups and over 100,000 educators coordinating millions of community development and environmental-protection activities throughout the year.
In observance of the 40th anniversary of the April 22 Earth Day, Earth Day Network created multiple global initiatives, ranging from a Global Day of Conversation with mayors worldwide, focusing on bringing green investment and building a green economy; Athletes for the Earth Campaign that brings Olympic, professional, and every day athletes’ voices to help promote a solution to climate change; a Billion Acts of Green Campaign which will aggregate the millions of environmental service commitments that individuals and organizations around the world make each year; to Artist for the Earth, a campaign the involves hundreds of arts institutions and artists worldwide to create environmental awareness. EDN mobilized 1.5 billion people in 170 countries to participate in these global events and programs.
EDN has helped create Earth Day organizations worldwide.
Earth Day Canada
The first Canadian Earth Day was held on Thursday, September 11, 1980, and was organized by Paul D. Tinari, then a graduate student in Engineering Physics/Solar Engineering at Queen’s University. Flora MacDonald, then MP for Kingston and the Islands and Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, officially opened Earth Day Week on September 6, 1980 with a ceremonial tree planting and encouraged MPs and MPPs across the country to declare a cross-Canada annual Earth Day. The principal activities taking place on the first Earth Day included educational lectures given by experts in various environmental fields, garbage and litter pick-up by students along city roads and highways as well as tree plantings to replace the trees killed by Dutch Elm Disease
Earth Day Canada (EDC), a national environmental charity founded in 1990, provides Canadians with the practical knowledge and tools they need to lessen their impact on the environment. In 2004, it was recognized as the top environmental education organization in North America, for its innovative year-round programs and educational resources, by the Washington-based North American Association for Environmental Education, the world’s largest association of environmental educators. In 2008, it was chosen as Canada’s “Outstanding Non-profit Organization” by the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication. EDC regularly partners with thousands of organizations in all parts of Canada. EDC hosts a suite of six environmental programs: Ecokids, EcoMentors, EcoAction Teams, Community Environment Fund, Hometown Heroes and the Toyota Earth Day Scholarship Program.
History of the Equinox Earth Day
The equinoctial Earth Day is celebrated on the March equinox (around March 20) to mark the precise moment of astronomical mid-spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and of astronomical mid-autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. An equinox in astronomy is that moment in time (not a whole day) when the center of the Sun can be observed to be directly “above” the Earth’s equator, occurring around March 20 and September 23 each year. In most cultures, the equinoxes and solstices are considered to start or separate the seasons.
John McConnell first introduced the idea of a global holiday called “Earth Day” at the 1969 UNESCO Conference on the Environment. The first Earth Day proclamation was issued by San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto on March 21, 1970. Celebrations were held in various cities, such as San Francisco and in Davis, California with a multi-day street party. UN Secretary-General U Thant supported McConnell’s global initiative to celebrate this annual event; and on February 26, 1971, he signed a proclamation to that effect, saying:
May there be only peaceful and cheerful Earth Days to come for our beautiful Spaceship Earth as it continues to spin and circle in frigid space with its warm and fragile cargo of animate life.
United Nations secretary-general Kurt Waldheim observed Earth Day with similar ceremonies on the March equinox in 1972, and the United Nations Earth Day ceremony has continued each year since on the day of the March equinox (the United Nations also works with organizers of the April 22 global event). Margaret Mead added her support for the equinox Earth Day, and in 1978 declared:
“Earth Day is the first holy day which transcends all national borders, yet preserves all geographical integrities, spans mountains and oceans and time belts, and yet brings people all over the world into one resonating accord, is devoted to the preservation of the harmony in nature and yet draws upon the triumphs of technology, the measurement of time, and instantaneous communication through space.
Earth Day draws on astronomical phenomena in a new way – which is also the most ancient way – by using the vernal Equinox, the time when the Sun crosses the equator making the length of night and day equal in all parts of the Earth. To this point in the annual calendar, EARTH DAY attaches no local or divisive set of symbols, no statement of the truth or superiority of one way of life over another. But the selection of the March Equinox makes planetary observance of a shared event possible, and a flag which shows the Earth, as seen from space, appropriate.”
At the moment of the equinox, it is traditional to observe Earth Day by ringing the Japanese Peace Bell, which was donated by Japan to the United Nations. Over the years, celebrations have occurred in various places worldwide at the same time as the UN celebration. On March 20, 2008, in addition to the ceremony at the United Nations, ceremonies were held in New Zealand, and bells were sounded in California, Vienna, Paris, Lithuania, Tokyo and many other locations. The equinox Earth Day at the UN is organized by the Earth Society Foundation.
April 22 observances
Growing eco-activism before Earth Day 1970
In 1968, Morton Hilbert and the U.S. Public Health Service organized the Human Ecology Symposium, an environmental conference for students to hear from scientists about the effects of environmental degradation on human health. This was the beginning of Earth Day. For the next two years, Hilbert and students worked to plan the first Earth Day. In April 1970—along with a federal proclamation from U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson—the first Earth Day was held.
Project Survival, an early environmentalism-awareness education event, was held at Northwestern University on January 23, 1970. This was the first of several events held at university campuses across the United States in the lead-up to the first Earth Day. Also, Ralph Nader began talking about the importance of ecology in 1970.
The 1960s had been a very dynamic period for ecology in the US. Pre-1960 grassroots activism against DDT in Nassau County, New York, had inspired Rachel Carson to write her bestseller, Silent Spring (1962).
Significance of April 22
Senator Nelson chose the date in order to maximize participation on college campuses for what he conceived as an “environmental teach-in”. He determined the week of April 19–25 was the best bet as it did not fall during exams or spring breaks. Moreover, it did not conflict with religious holidays such as Easter or Passover, and was late enough in spring to have decent weather. More students were likely to be in class, and there would be less competition with other mid-week events—so he chose Wednesday, April 22.
Unbeknownst to Nelson, April 22, 1970, was coincidentally the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin. Time reported that some suspected the date was not a coincidence, but a clue that the event was “a Communist trick”, and quoted a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution as saying, “subversive elements plan to make American children live in an environment that is good for them.” J. Edgar Hoover, director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, may have found the Lenin connection intriguing; it was alleged the FBI conducted surveillance at the 1970 demonstrations. The idea that the date was chosen to celebrate Lenin’s centenary still persists in some quarters although Lenin was never noted as an environmentalist.
In Nebraska, Arbor Day happens to fall on April 22, that being the birthday of Julius Sterling Morton, the founder of the national tree-planting holiday that started in 1872 and which has been a legal holiday in the state since 1885. According to the National Arbor Day Foundation “the most common day for the state observances is the last Friday in April … but a number of state Arbor Days are at other times in order to coincide with the best tree-planting weather.” It has since been largely eclipsed by the more widely observed Earth Day, except in Nebraska, where it originated.
Earth Day ecology flag
According to Flags of the World, the Ecology Flag was created by cartoonist Ron Cobb, published on November 7, 1969, in the Los Angeles Free Press, then placed in the public domain. The symbol is a combination of the letters “E” and “O” taken from the words “Environment” and “Organism,” respectively. The flag is patterned after the United States’ flag, with thirteen alternating-green-and-whites stripes. Its canton is green with a yellow theta. Later flags used either a theta or the peace symbol. Theta would later become associated with Earth Day.
Earth Day anthem
There are many songs that are performed on Earth Day, that generally fall into two categories. Popular songs by contemporary artists not specific to Earth Day that are under copyright, or new lyrics adapted to children’s songs. Creating new lyrics that are easily translated into multiple languages, and set to a universally recognized melody in the public domain, does not appear to have been attempted.
The “Earth Day Anthem” below satisfies these requirements for a universal song associated with Earth Day. Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” melody is already the official anthem of the European Union (in that case purely instrumental without lyrics), the melody is widely recognized and easily performed, in the public domain, and originally composed for voice. Lyrics for the Earth Day Anthem set to “Ode to Joy” are provided below:
Joyful joyful we adore our Earth in all its wonderment
Simple gifts of nature that all join into a paradise
Now we must resolve to protect her
Show her our love through out all time
With our gentle hand and touch
We make our home a newborn world
Now we must resolve to protect her
Show her our love through out all time
With our gentle hand and touch
We make our home a newborn world
Writer Alex Steffen, proponent of bright green environmentalism, charges that Earth Day has come to symbolize the marginalization of environmental protection, and the celebration itself has outlived its usefulness.
A May 5, 2009 editorial in The Washington Times contrasted Arbor Day with Earth Day, claiming that Arbor Day was a happy, non-political celebration of trees, whereas Earth Day was a pessimistic, political ideology that portrayed humans in a negative light.
The questionable nature of companies and products involved in Earth Day related promotions has led to accusations of greenwashing.
Earth Day 2010
Earth Day 2010 coincided with the World People’s Conference on Climate Change, held in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and with the International Year of Biodiversity.