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End Plastic Pollution

The History of Earth Day


from University at Buffalo

"Earth Day is a commitment to make life better, not just bigger and faster; to provide real rather than rhetorical solutions. It is a day to re-examine the ethic of individual progress at mankind's expense. It is a day to challenge the corporate and government leaders who promise change, but who shortchange the necessary programs. It is a day for looking beyond tomorrow. April 22 seeks a future worth living."

- Environmental Teach-In Advertisement
New York Times, January 18, 1970

“Earth Day” was created in 1969 and 1970. However, Earth Day found its initial inspirations in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s -- decades marked by tremendous social and cultural awareness, times of activism and change, times of spiritual enlightenment and consciousness. One cultural concept around which millions of people began to rally was the environment.

The “birth” of the contemporary environmental movement began with the 1949 publication of Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac (UGL/HSL QH 81.L 56), considered by many to be one of the most important books on conservation written this century. Leopold's classic was preceded by the evolution of a contemporary wilderness ethic that began in the 1870s with the creation of Yellowstone National Park (the first such preserve in the world). This land and resource preservation movement extended to 1935 with the publication of The Living Wilderness by the Wilderness Society. The Society's first director, Howard Zahniser, drafted the first version of a wilderness bill in 1955. The bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota) in 1956 and signed into law as the Wilderness Act by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring (SEL SB 959 C3), was published in 1962 and had a deep and lasting impact by drawing people to heightened levels of concern about the environment.

Several events stimulated a greater concern for the quality of the environment in the 1960s. Among these events were the proclamation that:

  • the Great Lakes were dead -- choked by what seemed to be an endless infusion of pollutants
  • the grounding of the “Torrey Canyon” off the coast of England, the first catastrophic oil spill from a supertanker
  • Ohio's Cuyahoga River catching on fire -- three times (1936, 1952, 1969) -- from the debris and fuels spilt on its surface.

Late in the fall of 1969 the seed for Earth Day was planted when a group of persons in San Francisco lead by John McConnell, approached Peter Tamaris, head of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, with a resolution to devote one day a year (originally proposed on March 21, 1970, the date of the vernal equinox, and is still celebrated on the equinox as day to celebrate the Earth and the intricacies and fragile nature of its interactions.

See Earth Day: Past, Present, and Future for a history of the original Earth Day and its founder, John McConnell. Included in this site is McConnell's original Earth Day ProclamationEarth Site is McConnell's continuing efforts to promote awareness for celebrating the Earth and from which McConnell promotes these ongoing efforts. It is noted that this Earth Day takes on a much spiritual mantle in celebrating the gifts of Earth and its resources. Also note that McConnell chose March 21 (Equinox) as Earth Day. Readhis own words on this.

Coinciding with McConnell's grassroots initiative, Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin) had become quite frustrated with a lack of environmental interest among his Senate colleagues. Hoping to stimulate popular interest for the environment, Nelson looked to America's non-violent campus activism for inspiration and proposed a series of environmental learning experiences, “teach-ins” for campuses across the nation. In a speech in Seattle in September 1969, Nelson announced a national environmental teach-in for the Spring of 1970.

Harvard graduate student, Denis Hayes, went to Washington, D.C. to interview Senator Nelson, who made one of his most persuasive environmental arguments. Nelson persuaded the young, idealistic student to coordinate the nationwide activities that would become another Earth Day celebration.

There are several "conspiracy theories" surrounding the date of April 22nd for Earth Day. First is that was the 100th birthday of Vladimir Lenin (Earth Day was/is a Communist-inspired activity), and "stealing the thunder" of McConnell's equinoctial Earth Day of the March21st vernal solstice. April 22 may have been chosen as the best and most practical date to reach the primary audience, college students; a Wednesday was chosen because it would be the least inconvenient for students who were called upon to participate in the event. There would be no competition with weekend activities, the weather in the northern states would be warming, it was after the annual southern migration of “spring-break” and well before final exams.

The result was a spectacular non-violent demonstration. Folk singer Pete Seeger performed at the Washington Monument, and cars were banned from New York City's Fifth Avenue to accommodate the events. Public speeches, parades, marches, rallies on college campuses, and “teach-ins” launched the contemporary environmental movement. Seeds planted in earlier years were beginning to provide trees that would bear fruit.

The first Earth Day was the largest focused demonstration in history. Congress closed its doors as politicians went home to attend or participate in local events. Legislatures from 42 states passed Earth Day resolutions to commemorate the date. An estimated 20 million Americans -- students, teachers, and officials -- took part in the activities. The wire services carried the story nationwide. The response was dramatic and the call for making April 22nd an annual Earth Day took root. Until recently, this second, "popular" Earth Day has over-shadowed McConnell's original idea for an Earth Day.

The impact on the nation was tremendous. Environmental organizations blossomed and the membership ranks of established conservation groups swelled. The United States Congress, spurred on by the earlier passage of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, passed the Clean Air Act amendments and the Clean Water Act revisions. By the end of 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was created.

Love CanalBhopalTimes BeachExxon ValdezChernobyl disaster, and Three Mile Island are grim reminders that since the first Earth Day our environmental problems have not been solved.

Acid rainglobal warming, and ozone depletion -- topics that have no respect for political boundaries -- show the global dimensions, scientific complexities, and policy dilemmas of contemporary environmental issues.

Today, scores of bibliographic database provide online access to tens of thousands of journal articles, books, proceedings, technical reports, and other forms of literature related to the environment. Searching for environmental data and information these days seems like standing at the base of a towering cliff and being unprepared to begin the laborious assault. From your position in front of the rock wall you are seeing only a part of the whole, and can experience great difficulty and frustration in seeking a direct route to the top. Take several steps back and view the mountain in its entirety. Gather your gear and plot an exact and systematic ascent to the summit. Better yet, take a reference librarian as your guide. They have covered the routes before and are always glad to help others appreciate the views along the way.

Earth Day History

For an example of how you can make your office more Earth Friendly, read Earth Day 2000: Catalyst for Community Outreach Paper presented at the 1999 New York Library Association Annual Meeting, session, "How Green Is My Library?" Includes descriptions of events and activities libraries can do to promote Earth Day. Extensive lists of resources provided as handouts are included in the site. Still a timely document.