The History of Earth Day: An Environmental Movement Goes Global

A look at the history of Earth Day shows that much has been accomplished in four decades, yet much remains to be done. This powerful environmental movement offers a springboard for local and global action to protect our planet.
By Amanda Sorell
April/May 2014
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Thousands gathered in New York City on the first Earth Day in 1970.
Photo by Corbis/Bettmann

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As April 22 comes around once again, let’s take a look back at the history of Earth Day and how a key environmental movement has grown and shifted.

The idea of Earth Day began as a seed in U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson’s mind, firmly planted after he witnessed the destruction left by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif. Nelson appointed environmental activist Denis Hayes as the day’s first coordinator to bring the idea to fruition. Bold and bipartisan, Earth Day debuted on April 22, 1970, with 20 million participants taking to U.S. parks, streets and auditoriums to publicly push back against unsustainable practices and rally for environmental protection. The events brought together two key branches of environmentalism for the first time on such a large scale: conservationism and environmental health. According to Hayes, the first Earth Day was at least five times larger than any anti-war rally and 20 times larger than any civil rights rally that had come before it. It was a catalyst to spur the passing of the landmark Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

The Earth Day movement has since grown in scope and structure, and participation has gone global. Though its evolution has come under criticism — some argue the day is now a prime stage for corporate “greenwashing” — Earth Day has helped spread environmental awareness to all corners of the planet. In 1990, 200 million people in 141 countries participated in Earth Day events. In 2000, concerned citizens the world over came together in person and online to demand clean energy. And in 2010, the Washington, D.C.-based Earth Day Network led 225,000 people in a rally at the National Mall for Earth Day’s 40th anniversary, aiming to re-establish the day as a launching pad for environmental engagement.

Current Earth Day activists face many of the same challenges and are pressing for many of the same changes as the very first Earth Day participants. Multigenerational environmental problems demand ongoing attention and innovative initiatives. Earth Day still encourages our global community to rise above political and regional differences to unite for a common cause. To learn more about the history of Earth Day and to find Earth Day events in your area, go to

Amanda Sorell is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. You can find her on .

Post a comment below.


4/22/2015 4:57:44 PM
The premise is good, but the day was set to honor Lenin on his birthday. I disagree with him that there should be NO private property, and his other Communist ideals. Lets keep Earth Day and change the date.

4/22/2015 11:59:54 AM
And for Chris who wants GMO/GE information, many sources exist, nearly all 'controversial'. For a more balanced view as it relates to human nutrition, see (also for other disputed notions in nutrition) Dr Greger's site, which has several videos and a blog to summarize what's known.

4/22/2015 11:53:33 AM
It's sad to see 2 of 3 comments misinformed. To supply some info, see the Scripps (Keeling father and son)data on CO2 levels from 1957, and the more detailed climate, icepack, methane and other data collected in the IPCC reports. If that's not enough (it is), check current understanding of CO2 levels, from ice cores and other sources, since long before there were humans. The changes are predictable (from the greenhouse effect, to start), and the human fingerprints are evident. You did it and are doing it more than ever, and payment, or retribution, is due. As most cities drown, denials will continue. In a society where long-term planning is now 0.3 seconds (in stocks), what would you expect?

4/20/2015 8:50:28 AM
Global cooling in the early 70's.

4/23/2014 4:29:30 AM
Where can I get sound info on G.M.Os Thank you

4/21/2014 8:44:42 AM
Climate change is a hoax.I've been on this earth a long time and seen no changes, everything is cyclical.

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