The History of Earth Day: An Environmental Movement Goes Global

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Photo by Corbis/Bettmann
Thousands gathered in New York City on the first Earth Day in 1970.

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 .