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.
Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1971, the Clean Water Act in 1972, the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. By 1980, our environment was protected by law with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Toxic Substance Control Act, Federal Environment Pesticide Control Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Activists were working harder than ever bringing issues of reducing pollution, reclaiming natural lands, and resource restoration to the forefront of our legislative priorities. Senator Nelson wrote in 1980, on the 10th anniversary of Earth Day, “So long as the human species inhabits the Earth, proper management of its resources will be the most fundamental issue we face.”
By Earth Day 1990, 200 million people around the world participated in the 20th anniversary celebration. Around the globe, citizens were wising up to ways they could help the planet; meanwhile, corporations capitalized on the popularity of going green with brand new “ozone-friendly” and “biodegradable” products. The nineties focused earth awareness on “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Fortunately, recycling got a big boost in the 1990s, and consumers were beginning to make more conscious choices, such as paper over plastic.
Earth Days were becoming less politically and educationally motivated, with corporations sponsoring events that brought big crowds (and lots of waste). The Earth Day Concerts for the Earth tradition was introduced in 1993 when Paul McCartney played an Earth Day show in LA, with simultaneous concerts in Maryland, and New York City.
At the onset of the new millennium, global warming was on everyone’s mind. Technology was exploding with possibility, clean energy alternatives were being explored, and the internet provided the perfect tool for international environmental education initiatives and widespread awareness. In 2006, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was shown in colleges and communities throughout the world. The Earth Day Network produced free annual Green Apple Music Festivals on Earth Day weekends in US cities beginning in 2006, also.
In 2007, Sydney Australia led the world with a citywide “lights out” for one hour in an event called Earth Hour. Mayor Alioto’s initial Earth Day proclamation also included an Earth Hour observance calling for one hour of silence or meditation. Later that year on July 7, 2007, the Live Earth concert event unified millions of young people with simultaneous music performances infused with a powerful message of solidarity in environmental action. In 2008, Earth Hour went global. In 2009 Earth Hour went viral.
This year, 1.5 billion people are predicted to participate in Earth Day celebrations, with international events and action throughout March and April. There is more potential than ever before to connect with each other through new media and technology. Our evolution as a species is undeniable; however, we should still strive to emulate our ancestors, the ancient cultures that truly embraced Earth Day everyday, way before it was cliche. We must continue innovating and coming up with creative ways to support our communities in transitioning to sustainable practices.
And also remember the simple principles recommended when Earth Day began in 1970. Here are a few favorites:
- Know that the air and water that circulates around the planet circulates through us.
- Share cars, newspapers, and whatever you can.
- Use your hands. Use your legs.
- Learn how a person treats the Earth before you vote for him or her.
- Rejoice in human energy!