Notable events in the history of Earth Day
The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, came on the heels of events in the ‘60s. Some point to the Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969; others say the first Earth Day was inspired by the publication of Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring" in 1962, which shed light on the destruction of pesticides like DDT. Whichever milestone you associate with the founding of the event, we can all agree Earth Day has evolved into an international movement that seeks to bring people together under the unified cause of preserving the planet for future generations.
Since its inception, Earth Day has been adopted in dozens of countries around the world and recognized by the United Nations as a global effort. In the last half-century, the world has seen hundreds of demonstrations, marches, protests, and subsequent movements all centered around the crucial goal of nurturing and protecting the environment. From wastewater standards to global initiatives to plant trees, the largest climate strike in the world, and national cleanups, what started as a single day created by a U.S. senator from Wisconsin is now a bonafide worldwide sensation.
In observance of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Stacker used a variety of authoritative resources from news articles to organization websites such as the Earth Day Network to compile a list of 20 notable events in the history of Earth Day. While we may not be celebrating the 50th anniversary as initially intended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the spirit and message of Earth Day are still being spread around the world as Earth Day Network readies the planet to take the April 22 message digital.
Keep reading to learn about many of the Earth Day milestones throughout its five decades.
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September 1962: ‘Silent Spring’ is published
In 1962, Rachel Carson's “Silent Spring” hit the shelves. The book exposed the damage that pesticides like DDT have on the environment, including the effect on both people and natural ecosystems. Though she was hit with a firestorm of criticism from the chemical industry, Carson helped fuel the movement that fought for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
January 1969: Santa Barbara oil spill
California had one of its darkest days in history on Jan. 28, 1969. Workers on an offshore oil rig saw the eruption of gas and drilling mud from a freshly bored well in the bay off the coast of Santa Barbara. That spill hurled 3 million gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean, destroying wildlife, greasing beaches, and reaching about 800 square miles of ocean. There were no government regulations in place for disasters such as these, which led to the biggest oil spill in U.S. history at the time. The disaster inspired members of Congress to establish the first Earth Day in April 1970.
January 1970: Santa Barbara Environmental Rights Day
The devastating oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara helped spawn a new age of environmental protection, including the University of California Santa Barbara leading a charge to create the Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights in 1970. These rights were read Jan. 28, 1970, exactly a year after the spill, and also read into the U.S. Congressional Record. The opening line was, "All people have the right to an environment capable of sustaining life and promoting happiness."
April 1970: First Earth Day
A growing understanding of environmental awareness brought about by the Santa Barbara oil spill and work of “Silent Spring” led U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin to conceive of a national day of action to expand awareness of the need for protecting the environment. The first Earth Day involved 20 million Americans gathering in streets, parks, and auditoriums to rally for a healthy environment.
December 1970: Congress authorizes creation of the EPA
Prior to 1970, there were no government regulations in place to regulate factory waste. Earth Day changed that: On the heels of the growing environmental movement, Congress in December 1970 approved the creation of a new arm of government to handle all environmental issues going forward called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
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February 1971: Earth Day recognized by the United Nations
While the United States and other nations had their own ways to commemorate Earth Day, it was officially recognized by the United Nations in 1971 on the vernal equinox, the first day of spring. UN Secretary-General U Thant signed a proclamation in February of that year. Today, while there is no one global Earth Day, 192 countries in the world celebrate Earth Day on either April 22 or the vernal equinox.
October 1972: Congress passes the Clean Water Act
Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 to regulate the discharge of toxins into U.S. water. The act gave the EPA leverage to create pollution control programs and develop wastewater standards.
April 1980: First Canadian Earth Day
Canada began celebrating Earth Day in April 1980 and has expanded the event to Earth Week (and sometimes Earth Month in certain places.) Projects undertaken by Canada in conjunction with the observance include Edmonton's Earth Day Festival and Ontario's Waterways Clean-up.
April 1990: 20th Earth Day recognized by 141 countries
Earth Day made its mark in its first couple of decades: By 1990 141 countries observed some form of the holiday. Within those countries, an estimated 200 million people participated in Earth Day-related events.
September 1995: Sen. Gaylord Nelson awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom
Twenty-five years after founding Earth Day in the United States, Gaylord Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Clinton honored him with the medal, which represents the highest honor given to civilians in the country.
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