Before 1970, the word “environmentalism” was more likely to wind up in a spelling bee than a 6 o’clock newscast.
Five decades ago, as American cars belched leaded gasoline from souped-up V8 engines and pollution billowed from industrial plants, conversations on the deteriorating ecosystem and its human causes were mostly limited to liberal college classrooms in the east and counterculture hippie communes on the West Coast.
“In the U.S. and around the world, smog was becoming deadly and evidence was growing that pollution led to developmental delays in children,” Earth Day Network president Kathleen Rogers said in a recent statement. “Biodiversity was in decline as a result of the heavy use of pesticides and other pollutants.”
Seeing how student-led anti-war protests had captured the attention of the American public, Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, planned a national teach-in focused on raising awareness of environmental destruction. Nelson had seen firsthand the damage caused by a massive 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California.
Nelson recruited Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey as his co-chair and Harvard Professor Denis Hayes as national coordinator for the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970.
Falling between spring break and final exams, the date was intended to accommodate students.
An estimated 20 million people took to streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies, Rogers said of the first celebration. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment.
The first event also brought together disparate groups fighting against oil spills, polluting factories, toxic dumps and pesticides – engaging them in a common cause.
Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, Rogers wrote, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, and tycoons and labor leaders.
By the end of that year, the first Earth Day had helped prompt the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.