History of Earth Day: thinking green since 1970

Bethany Kondiles

Earth Day is an annual nationwide tradition credited with helping to spawn environmental and political successes such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Across the country, Earth Day has been celebrated a variety of ways by universities, grassroots organizations, communities and individuals. The idea has always been the same: a day to both celebrate the earth as well as inspire political action to conserve and preserve her.
It all began in the ’60s. The lack of consideration for the environment in political decisions frustrated Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. In 1962, he began a campaign to bring environmental issues into the limelight.
From sending President Kennedy on a five-day-long conservation trip to visit 11 states in 1963 to personally giving speeches across the country, Nelson attempted to bring attention to environmental issues.
He felt the “environmental degradation was appearing everywhere, and everyone noticed except the political establishment.” Despite his efforts, he continued to feel frustrated by the lack of environmental concern in the government.
It would be another six years before Earth Day was conceived. The idea was born of “teach-ins” held by activists to protest the Vietnam War. Nelson was inspired, and decided to stage a similar protest over the environmental situation.
In the fall of 1969, he announced preparations for “a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment and invited everyone to participate.” The event was scheduled for April 22, 1970. It was instantly clear that the American people had been waiting for something like this – all over the country, people started getting involved.
Nelson insists that the instant response and enthusiasm for the first Earth Day only came about through grassroots movements across the country, and not the effort of his office: “We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”
The name “Earth Day” and the concept of the day as a celebratory event for the Earth came from John McConnell. In the fall of 1969, he submitted proposals to political leaders of California stating “WHEREAS, As Earthians, we need a day to celebrate our global unity and density, and WHEREAS, The observance of EARTH DAY will alert concern and interest for our planet .” The response was immediate, and several cities in northern California inaugurated their own Earth Day celebrations.
For more information on Earth Day festivities and activism of 2007, see http://earthday.envirolink.org, as well as the schedule of events for Lawrence’s own Earth Day celebration on April 21 on Main Hall Green. Join us in the spirit of the event, as we celebrate our great big Mother Earth and work together to keep her beautiful.