By Jason Chen

April 22nd marked a special day for over 190 countries. On the world’s 44th annual Earth Day, people around the world participated in events to advocate for environmental protection. First launched in 1970 by the United States, Earth Day proved to be a big success; by 1990, the event was taken to international levels and has remained that way ever since.

The history of Earth Day may be unclear for anybody not familiar with it. The idea plants its roots back in the 1960s, when pesticides, pollution, and sewage were beginning to become a problem for the U.S. The public witnessed such events as the Cuyahoga River fire and the massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Environmentalists fought for the banning of certain harmful chemicals; Rachel Carson in Silent Spring spoke of the dangers of the pesticide DDT. Factories spewed out smoke and filth, creating air and water pollution. Many people knew that something had to be done, but didn’t know what to do.

Senator Gaylord Nelson

As the concerns grew, more and more environmentalists tried to tackle the building problem. 1963 marked the first attempt at major reform, when Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin convinced current president John F. Kennedy to go on a conservation tour. Though steps were taken to motivate change, no big impact was made from Kennedy’s efforts.

Nelson didn’t give up, though – six years later, in 1969, he got the idea for a “protest” for environmental protection. With Denis Hayes, a Harvard student, the first environmental teach-in was held on April 22nd, 1970. The event, known as Earth Day, proved a big success, with over 10,000 people gathering in New York City alone to join the cause. The rallies were so successful that it was far larger than any protest at the time. To commemorate Nelson’s outstanding achievement, he was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award.

Big changes sparked from the debut of Earth Day. On top of a much greater environmental awareness among citizens, president Richard Nixon began to institute positive changes in the government. In 1970, Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a way to monitor the safety of the environment. Later on, acts such as the Clean Air, Clean Water, and the Endangered Species Acts were passed. This organization and these acts were major steps taken by the government to help protect the Earth.

The event continued for another twenty years, focused primarily in the U.S. However, Denis Hayes believed that the protest for environmental protection should be taken to national levels. 1990 marked a big change for the cause, making Earth Day turn from a national into an international event. That year, over 200 million people from 141 countries participated, hosting concerts, festivals, and lectures. Dramatic displays were made to show environmental support, such as a 500-mile human chain in France. The event helped to pave the way for other environmental events, such as the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit.
In 2000, even further advancements were made to Earth Day. Now that the Internet was widely used, it became a good tool to spread awareness. More than 5,000 environmentalist groups outside the U.S. were enlisted in the event, now with over 180 countries participating. Various and creative forms of participation ensued: a talking drum chain traveled through many villages in Gabon, Africa, while in the U.S. thousands of people gathered outside the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

This year, there was no shortage of enthusiasm for Earth Day. Major events were held in Maryland, Virginia, Washington D.C., and many other places. Cleanups, activities, and celebrations were all held to spread awareness of the cause and to educate people on the long struggle against pollution. While Earth Day may not solve all of our environmental problems, it certainly is a big step in improving our situation, and it will be remembered forever as an integral part of the cause.

Fun Fact: Did you know that there are actually two Earth Days? The one we all know is on April 22nd, but there is actually another one that originated earlier, on March 21st, 1970. This Earth Day is considered the “first” Earth Day, and it always occurs on the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere (either March 20th or March 21st). It is celebrated internationally, and was proposed by Joseph McConnell at an UNESCO conference held in San Francisco in 1969.