Earth Day turns 50: yesterday, today and tomorrow

by Carol Mosley

Earth Day, as we know it, was first celebrated in the U.S. in 1970 and brought millions across the globe out of classrooms and work places into the streets to bring environmental concerns to the forefront.

This year on April 22nd Earth Day will turn 50 years old. We’ve come a long way over the decades in some areas, but have lost ground in others, such as species decline, and we have a long way yet to go.

The 1950s brought urban sprawl and the age of convenience, which also meant more stuff to dispose of and more pollution from manufacturing. The car became an essential for every family outside of a major city, spewing CO2 into the atmosphere without a second thought to the consequences of air  pollution, let alone toxicity of leaded gas. Beaches and birds were turning up drenched in oil spilled from tankers. And, we found out the hard way that CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) were acting like Pac Men and eating holes in our ozone layer. The cost of rampant growth was too great.

The 1960s were a time of social change on multiple fronts. The Civil Rights movement set the stage for protests against the Vietnam War and Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” shocked the world with the effects of DDT on the bird population, especially our own national bird, the Bald Eagle. Environmental issues were becoming evident across the globe, and the stage was set for a massive public awareness campaign addressing the connection between a healthy planet and our own health and well being.

The first idea to set aside a day to honor Earth and promote peace was made by peace activist, John McConnell, at a UNESCO conference in 1969. A month later, Wisconson Sen. Gaylord Nelson saw an opportunity to put environmental concerns in the forefront of American minds by declaring an official day to hold “teach-ins” to raise the public consciousness and promote a call to action. In 1969 he had been shocked by an oil slick along the coast of Santa Barbara from a Union Oil platform’s blowout releasing more than three million gallons into the ocean. Tens of thousands of sea lions, dolphins, and sea birds died.

Senator Nelson recruited California Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, who had been working on formation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and environmentalist Denis Hayes, to lead a committee with a staff of 85 to organize the events. The date of April 22, 1970 was chosen as ideal because it was after spring break but before final exams.

It is estimated that 10 percent of the U.S. population attended an Earth Day event somewhere. It was celebrated on thousands of college campuses and in public schools. Mayor Lindsey of New York agreed to close Fifth Avenue to accommodate the crowds and offered use of Central Park for activities. The New York events were carried by all the major TV networks, bringing environmental issues to the attention of the general public. Speeches, teach-ins and other events took place in parks across the nation. Cartoonist Walt Kelly created a poster of his character, Pogo, reminding humans that “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

That first Earth Day provided the impetus that led to formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and passage of landmark environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. Concern for a healthy environment had been inserted into the public psyche and onto the political platform. It was a unified understanding across party lines and social stature, by young and old, including labor and commerce, that what happens to our environment happens also to us.

Environmental consciousness was not contained to the U.S. alone, and Earth Day celebrations went global over the decade. Entering into 1990, recycling took a front seat along with preparation for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. 

Some in the environmental movement took issues with the way Earth Day celebrations were being usurped by corporations and governments to promote products and political agendas rather than public educational opportunities and hands on actions.

As the world turned over into a new millennium, Earth Day 2000 focused on clean energy and global warming. It had the internet as an organizing tool to take the message world wide. That also provided an opportunity for environmental activists and scientists to connect with each other and regular people.

Earth Day turned 40 in 2010 to well funded campaigns of feeding public skepticism over global warming, and denial by corporate polluters and lobbyists who successfully swayed politicians. But in 2016, the United Nations chose Earth Day to sign the Paris Climate Agreement.

Now, in 2020, Earth Day is turning 50 this April 22nd and environmental awareness is no less a concern than when it was founded in 1990. 

The climate crisis is front and center but addressing it takes many directions. This year will focus on five main components. The Citizen Science component seeks to collect one billion data points provided by citizens of all ages and interests. Education, advocacy, and local volunteering are all important factors. The call for events is our opportunity to enlighten, and demonstrate to, the public as well as support the Artists for the Earth initiative. Uniting science and art provides a shift in perspectives for both, which broadens possibilities for solutions. It also serves to provide a platform for expression of joy and an opportunity to bring newcomers into the fold.

As we work with the generations younger than us to bring Earth Day into the next decade, let’s keep in mind the adage that we don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

What are YOUR plans for Earth Day 2020 celebrations? You are welcome to join the Bradford Environmental Forum and the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice for a double weekend of Earth Day activities on April 18 and 25. Visit for details.

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