Earth Day: How Did It Begin and How Can You Help Celebrate It Year Round?

By Audrey Li

We just celebrated Earth Day with a planting and work day at our Pederson Preserve in Barrington.  High school students and adult volunteers came out to help clean up brush and buckthorn and to plant seedlings grown by the Horticultural Department at the high school.  Why is Earth Day such an important day?  Let’s look at how and why it began.

Prior to the first Earth Day, maintaining and protecting earth’s natural resources was not regarded as a priority.  Factories released pollutants into the air and only a minute portion of the American population engaged in the practice of recycling.  Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, was the founder of the first Earth Day.  The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, which boosted public awareness for the environment, the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and a 1969 fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, are among the plethora of factors that led to Senator Nelson’s orchestration of the first Earth Day, which he believed was a crucial step in creating an influential environmental movement.

Senator Nelson decided to launch Earth Day on April 22, 1970 to bring attention and awareness to the public about our fragile environment.  He did this with the help of staff, Congressman McCloskey and Dennis Hayes, the national coordinator of the first Earth Day. He chose that day because it landed between Spring Break and exams for college students and was before summer break for high school students thus allowing them to participate.  According to reports in the Baltimore Magazine, 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day events and more than 1,500 colleges and universities and 10,000 grade schools and high schools participated in rallies and speeches held around the country.  Congress even went into recess that day in acknowledgement of the first Earth Day.

This massive success of the first Earth Day also led to the creation of many vital pieces of environmental legislation in the 1970’s, such as the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.  The Environmental Protection Agency was also started in December of 1970 in response to Earth Day.  In 1995, Senator Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for founding Earth Day and for his efforts to raise awareness of the conservation of the earth.

How can you help celebrate Earth Day year round?  Partake in little actions to protect the earth, be mindful of your water usage, reduce your carbon footprint, make your home more energy efficient, and as we are approaching the summer months, go on more outdoor walks and feel at one with nature.

You cannot get through a single day without having on impact on the world around you.  What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

Jane Goodall