Reflections on Earth Day: Years of Progress

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April 22, 1970. That’s the day 20 million Americans first “took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies.”

They were there because they took to heart the gravity of the message being proclaimed on that first Earth Day: “Act or die.”

Mixed Initial Reviews

Almost 50 years later, that message still resonates. And looking back, that first Earth Day is often viewed as a watershed moment for environmentalists. But the success of those early demonstrations was mixed.

For instance, beloved CBS newsman Walter Cronkite,  reported the following in that evening’s news:

“By one measurement, Earth Day failed. It did not unite. It didn’t attract that broad cross section of America its sponsors wanted. Not quite. Its demonstrators were predominately young, predominately white, predominately anti-Nixon. Often its protests appeared frivolous, its protesters curiously carefree.”

A Movement Is Born

Nevertheless. the spark had been ignited. By the end of 1970, what began as Earth Day had led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It had also resulted in the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts. In fact, that first Earth Day is widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement.

Earth DayEarth Day founder and Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson got his inspiration from the anti-Vietnam War movement. Nelson had wanted to infuse that kind of energy into the public consciousness about air and water pollution.

The idea was to force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. “It was a gamble,” Nelson later recalled, “but it worked.”

Student groups, 2,000 colleges and universities, 10,000 lower schools, citizen groups, and 2,000 communities all organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Competing environmental interests began working together. Individual organizations that had been campaigning against oil spills, polluting factories, raw sewage, toxic dumps, and wildlife extinction began to realize they shared common values.

In 1990, Earth Day went global. The movement mobilized 200 million people in 141 countries, lifting environmental issues onto the world stage.  Ten years later, 5,000 environmental groups in 184 countries participated in Earth Day 2000. Harnessing the power of the internet, activists organized and reached out to hundreds of millions of people.

Today, events in more than 193 countries are now coordinated globally by the Earth Day Network. Earth Day has become the world’s largest civic observance, celebrated by more than 1 billion people every year.

Environmental Victories

In addition to the creation of the EPA and passage of clean air and water regulations, a plethora of other environmental victories have been realized since that first Earth Day in 1970. Here’s just a few of them:

What’s on the Horizon?

Looking ahead to Earth Day 2020 – the 50th anniversary – EDN intends to “connect three billion people and engage at least half the planet in collective action to create a sustainable future.” To this end, the network is strongly promoting several of its key environmental campaigns, including:

Trees for the Earth

Initially launched on Earth Day 2016, this campaign involves more than 50 percent of the world’s countries in a tree-planting initiative. EDN’s goal is to plant 7.8 billion trees – one for every person living on the planet in 2020 – with the help of governments, corporations, NGOs, and individuals.

Green Schools

This campaign connects schools with financing for green building enhancements, works to create a nexus between education and green jobs, helps to provide sustainable food options for students, and works to ensure safe and fuel-efficient student transportation.

National Civic Education Project

This initiative empowers teachers and students to remedy specific environmental challenges facing their communities, while helping them to develop lifelong civic skills.

We’ll leave you with this brief reminder of what it’s all about:


CBS News

National Geographic

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