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The History of Earth Day – 50 Years of Efforts to Save the Planet

Earth Day turns 50. We look at its history to understand what we can learn about Climate Action.

Updated
Environment
4 min read

Fifty years ago, on 22 April 1970, the United States witnessed a massive turnout of young people, celebrities and politicians across party lines, all demanding action against an impending environmental crisis. Today, Earth Day is observed across the world, but this year, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the call to mitigate climate change threats takes on a much more significant shape and perhaps also gives us an opportunity to re-examine our relationship with the planet.

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we take a look at its history.

Earth Day was the brainchild of a junior American senator, Gaylord Nelson, who decided to mobilise a nationwide student-led protest against the deterioration of the environment. Following the massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California in 1969, Nelson decided that a protest similar in nature to the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations would be the best way to mobilise a collective consciousness to save the environment.

Dennis Hayes, a young student activist, is selected as the national coordinator and 22 May 1970 is decided as the date that would be observed as Earth Day.

Twenty million Americans heeded the call to save the environment, protesting against its deterioration due to 150 years of unscrupulous industrialisation. People from all walks of life, including celebrities like Paul Newman, Ali McGraw, and Pete Seeger join the protest rallies, across cities, towns, and communities.

By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day leads to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and also the passage of a number of laws such as the National Environmental Education Act, Clean Air Act and two years later, the Clean Water Act.

Two decades after it is first observed in the United States, Earth Day goes global in 1990, with over 200 million people from 141 countries taking part. Earth Day 1990 gives a huge boost to global recycling efforts and also leads to the first United Nations Earth Summit, which is held in Rio De Janeiro in 1992.

Dennis Hayes is called upon once again to take charge of organising the first Earth Day of the new Millennium. Over 5,000 environmental groups across 184 countries start conversations on global warming and a bid to push clean energy. Using the power of the Internet, conversations are also held at the community level to help expedite a decisive action against climate change. The highlight of Earth Day 2000, though, is a drum chain that travels from village to village in Gabon, Africa.

Despite growing challenges for the pro-climate action community and environmentalists, Earth Day 2010 engages with 75,000 partners across 197 countries. Even as climate change deniers, powerful oil lobbyists play down the impending threats, 2,50,000 people show up in Washington DC to demand climate action. Two new projects ‘A Billion Acts of Green’ and ‘The Canopy Project’ are launched.

The year 2020 is particularly challenging for the world, and amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Earth Day has been taken online. The theme for this year is ‘Climate Action’. Over three days, environmental activists, thought leaders, artists, and performers will take to online platforms to reiterate the need for an increased urgency to combat the threat from climate change.

Perhaps the disruption caused by COVID-19 will finally push world leaders to not wait for a climate-related global catastrophe to hit us before we take action. Maybe this will be the year when governments across the world understand that proactive measures and international cooperation to mitigate the climate threat cannot be overlooked or delayed anymore.

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