Earth Day: A Brief History
While most of the world celebrates Earth Day on 21 March, the day of spring equinox, the U.S. observes it on April 22. Both holidays were born at virtually the same time and, what’s more, were the inventions of citizens from one and the same country: the United States.
John McConnel, an American businessman and journalist, suggested the idea of creating a holiday to honor planet earth’s life and beauty in 1969 during the National UNESCO Conference in San Francisco. That following February of 1971, then Secretary General U Thant signed the Earth Day Proclamation, beginning the United Nation’s tradition of observing the holiday on the day of spring equinox by ringing the UN Peace Bell in New York City.
America, however, celebrates Earth Day one month later, in late April.
This discrepancy occurred thanks to one Gaylord Nelson, often regarded as the originator of the Earth Day movement in the United States. A U.S. senator from Wisconsin and long-time advocate of wildlife and environmental conservation, Nelson was the spark that ignited the environmental activism fire. According to University of Missouri scholar David Webber, in 1970 Nelson came up with the idea of creating environmental teach-ins, tailored after wildly popular anti-Vietnam War teach-ins of the time, to focus the public’s attention on the need to conserve natural resources. After careful preparation, including an ambitious letter writing campaign to all 50 of the nation’s governors and the mayors of prominent U.S. cities, Senator Nelson was able to capture America’s collective spirit for the country’s first Earth Day.
The celebration, held on April 22, 1970, turned out to be a huge success, with an estimated 20 million Americans participating in various educational activities and community events all around the nation. Even the U.S. Congress took the unprecedented measure of recessing so it, too, could observe the holiday. Senator Nelson would later be awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, in large part for his contributions to the environmental movement.
Soon after the inaugural event, federal legislation was passed revolutionizing the U.S. environmental regulatory landscape. In July, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency, the first federal agency of its kind in the world, was born. As its name suggests, the agency’s mission is to “protect human health and the environment” for generations of Americans to come.