The Evolution of Earth Day - The Years Project

The Evolution of Earth Day

By Anna Conkling

Every year on April 22, something incredibly important happens for our planet. It’s not the spring equinox, that’s a month earlier, although some say it is as fundamentally connected to our future as a species. Earth Day calls attention to the damage that we have done to our home and demands politicians and big corporations make the changes necessary to keep the planet habitable. More importantly, the world’s de facto green holiday paved the way for the modern climate movement, which may be the last hope of saving our civilization. It’s long history, dating back nearly 50 years, has continued to change decade by decade with new goals, challenges, targets that have helped it evolve from a nationwide protest to a global happening.

Motivated by witnessing the catastrophic 1969 oil spill that fouled the beaches of Santa Barbara, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day in 1970. Nelson decided that protecting the Earth had to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind and was inspired by the student-anti war movement of the 1970s. He thought that if he could bring the passion of the student protests to protect the Earth, it would force environmental protection onto the national stage.

On April 22, 1970 over 20 million Americans took part in the festivities. Thousands of college campuses protested, including activists who held mock funerals of objects that contribute to pollution, such as automobiles and toilets. Schools dumped piles of litter onto the steps of their city halls and manufacturing facilities. At San Fernando State College, students offered rice and tea to people that passed by to give them an insight into what a possible “hunger diet” they could expect in a future full of overconsumption, which will lead to worldwide famine. All of these protests led President Richard Nixon, a Republican, to create the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts.

Nineteen-eighty marked the 10th anniversary of Earth Day and its first year as a national event. The week before events took place, President Carter declared that the nation “must achieve another decade of environmental progress” and deemed April 22 as the official date for Earth Day. Across the country, events centered on providing education to participants and encouraging them to act in support of environmental goals.

The 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990 ushered in Earth Day 2.0 and gave birth to what is known as the modern Earth Day movement. It was also the year that Earth Day went global. In over 140 nations, 200 million people participated according to the Earth Day Network and national organizations introduced the slogan, “Who says you can’t change the world?” A pamphlet titled “50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth” sold more than 5 million copies. The New York Times reported that the 20th anniversary of Earth Day also began to target big corporations, urging them to cut emissions and make them more sensitive to climate and environmental concerns.

With the rise of the 21st century, Earth Day changed its focus from targeting corporations to drawing awareness to global warming and recycling. Earth Day 2000 also focused on stressing the importance of clean air and water. On that Earth Day, hundreds of millions of people in 184 countries, along with 5,000 environmental groups participated, according to Earth Day Network (EDN). People around the world took to the streets to celebrate the holiday’s 30th anniversary.

In 2010, Earth Day intertwined with World People’s Conference on Climate Change held in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The conference aimed to address the things that the UN COP15 did not, such as the failure to create a concrete plan to combat climate change globally. In the United States, President Obama released a video challenging Americans to take action and find ways they can help combat climate change in their communities.

What once started as a national protest has turned into a holiday listed on calendars across the globe. More than 1 billion people globally celebrated Earth Day in 2019 in over 190 countries. April 22, 2020 will mark 50 years since the founding of Earth Day and the stakes couldn’t be higher as we enter the final decade to stop the advance of rapid climate change. Young people associated with the Fridays For Future movement are planning a massive student strike, and are calling for adult supporters to join them.

Will we finally make the changes Earth Day protestors have been fighting for, or will we throw in the towel? Our lives literally depend on the answer.