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50 Years of Earth Day

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

April 22nd each year marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. Earth Day was founded by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, who proposed the first nationwide environmental protest “to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda”. “It was a gamble,” he recalls, “but it worked.”

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment. At the time, air pollution was rampant, we were dumping our trash from barges directly into the oceans, sewage treatment plants discharged with little or no treatment directly into our rivers and oceans, and many of our animals were in danger of extinction due to pesticide poisoning. This date started massive coast-to-coast rallies for people of all ages, political affiliation, jobs, and races. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts. Sen. Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest honor given to civilians in the United States — for his role as Earth Day founder.

For the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990, a group of environmental leaders brought Earth Day to the world, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries and lifting the status of environmental issues on to the world stage. Earth Day 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.

Earth Day 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. That year, 5,000 environmental groups around the world were on board, reaching out to hundreds of millions of people in a record 184 countries. Events included a talking drum chain traveled from village to village in Gabon, Africa; hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and clean-up efforts in dozens of countries.

For this year’s 50th anniversary, there were lots and lots of celebrations planned, all of which have been canceled due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.  However, the stay-at-home recommendations make it much easier for students to get outdoors with their families and connect with nature; make connections between their own, local actions and our cumulative human impact on the Earth; and consider ways we can reduce our own impacts on the planet. Check out SEA’s environmental activities and resources for ideas!

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