The ancient cultures who inhabited this blue planet before we did honored the Earth with prayers, rituals, and rites, ensuring harmony and balance with their surroundings. Although we rely on the same planet, Earth Day – now an international holiday – is a relatively new tradition in modern times.
This spring, we celebrate the 40th birthday of Earth Day, warranting a look back on our collective timeline of Earth Day celebrations past, in hopes we will continue the movement with renewed enthusiasm and urgency.
The city of San Francisco claims the first official Earth Day was on March 21 of 1970, the spring equinox. Mayor Joseph Alioto introduced Earth Day to “celebrate our global unity and destiny,” concluding our mutual mission is “to improve the Earth and the quality of life thereon.” In the years leading up to the first Earth Day, society had slipped into the grips of consumerism and convenience, with disregard to the environmental destruction we were leaving in our wake.
San Francisco and many other cities and campuses around the country were growing their grassroots network of activists thanks to the strength of the peace and love movement, also associated with the anti-Vietnam War movement. The environmental movement supported similar values; namely, the knowledge that everything effects everything else on this planet, and we are all connected.
A number of ecological disasters, such as the 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, caught the attention of the people, raising awareness and provoking action. After witnessing the oil spill, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin suggested a national environmental teach-in on every college campus across the country, choosing April 22, 1970 to accommodate students’ schedules, establishing the first national Earth Day. The celebration included 2000 campuses, countless communities, and 20 million people peacefully protesting environmental reform.
The birth of the environmental movement shifted our national priorities with the understanding that the health of the planet affects our health as a people. The momentum of the environmental awareness movement pervaded politics with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, followed by environmental legislation to reflect the changing landscape.