Earth Day: Continuing to Inspire Change

Over 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day.

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Over 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day.

On Monday, April 22nd, communities across the nation will be celebrating Earth Day. Some organizations will host events like trash pick-up or recycling drives. Students will post signs in their school bathroom reminding people to use less water. Beautification clubs will plant trees or flowers. And most people participate in these activities without much thought as to what exactly Earth Day really is. What is the history behind the day? And does it have the same goals now as it did when it first began?

Setting the Stage

In 1962, the environmental science book, Silent Spring, was published. In it, author Rachel Carson focused on the hazardous effects of indiscriminate pesticide use. The topic of pollution and public health hit a nerve, and Silent Spring became a bestseller, selling over 500,000 copies worldwide.

This new awareness caused the public to have a strong reaction to the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. The ocean-well blowout turned into the largest oil spill in American history at that time. This event led Senator Gaylord Nelson to tap the power of the college student population by creating a “national teach-in on the environment.” Nelson hoped the teach-in would help force environmental protection onto the political agenda.

Gaylord was assisted by both Pete McCloskey, a conservative Republican, and Denis Hayes, a professor at Harvard. They coordinated a core staff of 85 people to promote the event across the United States. Because they wanted to choose a date between Spring Break and Final Exams, the group settled on April 22nd.

The First Earth Day

The first Earth Day was observed in 1970. Over 20 million Americans participated in various events. The observance crossed political and economic lines. It seemed to have almost universal support and was celebrated not just on school campuses but in parks and other public places. The awareness created by that first event prompted the formation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. It also saw the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

1990, to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Earth Day, Hayes and other environmental leaders ran a campaign to help Earth Day go global. Almost 200 million people in 141 countries participated. This helped the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro come to fruition. In 1995 President Bill Clinton awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Senator Nelson for his role in founding Earth Day.

Citizen Science will engage citizens to help collect one billion data points to measure air quality, water quality, pollution and human health.

But what does Earth Day mean today?

Earth Day is now the largest secular observance in the world. More than a billion people celebrate Earth Day each year. More impressively, it continues to change behavior and inspire policy changes.

2020 will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. To honor this, Earth Day Network is launching a set of goals they hope will shape the future of 21st-century environmentalism. These goals fall under the category of five components:

Citizen Science: Engaging citizens to help collect one billion data points to measure air quality, water quality, pollution and human health.

Advocacy: Amplifying direct links between technological innovation and inclusive climate prosperity and creating millions of avenues for civic engagement

Volunteering: Engaging volunteers across the globe for a month-long worldwide volunteer-driven program, “The Great Global Cleanup.”

Education: Building environmental and climate literacy worldwide.

Events: Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with thousands of rallies and community events in every country in the world. Hosting large-scale signature events in Washington, D.C., and other global capitals.

Artists for the Earth: Using art to personalize climate change and disseminate it to a wider audience.

Earth Day Network hopes that, “The 50th anniversary of Earth Day will launch the most diverse and passionate global environmental movement in history.” To learn more about Earth Day, visit

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Annie Beth Donahue lives in Indian Trail, North Carolina with her husband Brad, and four children. She is a professional writer for both the web and print, and she can be found at

Annie Beth also has a bachelor's degree in music therapy from Queens University of Charlotte, and has either been working with or parenting children with special needs for the past 18 years. She is a children's book author and the founder and president of Signposts Ministries, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that serves families that have children with chronic health problems or disabilities. In her non-working time, she homeschools and oversees the children's care of their small menagerie made up of chickens, two donkeys, a dog, a cat, and a snake.