First Earth Day Is Celebrated

With about twenty million Americans participating, the first Earth Day was such a success that it is widely considered to mark the beginning of mainstream environmental awareness and action.

Summary of Event

On April 22, 1970, approximately twenty million Americans observed the first Earth Day by attending lectures and speeches, conducting rallies and demonstrations, and working on conservation projects. Although Senator Gaylord Nelson and Representative Paul McCloskey McCloskey, Paul served as the day’s cochairs, most of the organization and planning was directed by a small group in Washington, D.C., under the dynamic leadership of Denis Hayes, a young environmentalist and antiwar critic. The group, which was soon organized into Environmental Action, Incorporated Environmental Action, Incorporated , reported that it spent the modest sum of $125,000 in its coordination efforts. Earth Day
[kw]First Earth Day Is Celebrated (Apr. 22, 1970)
[kw]Earth Day Is Celebrated, First (Apr. 22, 1970)
Earth Day
[g]North America;Apr. 22, 1970: First Earth Day Is Celebrated[10790]
[g]United States;Apr. 22, 1970: First Earth Day Is Celebrated[10790]
[c]Environmental issues;Apr. 22, 1970: First Earth Day Is Celebrated[10790]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 22, 1970: First Earth Day Is Celebrated[10790]
Nelson, Gaylord
Hayes, Denis
Hickel, Walter J.

In all measurable ways, Earth Day was a huge success. In the cities of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, large crowds gathered to hear speeches by politicians, poets, and ecologists. The event was the largest national street festival since the celebrations following the defeat of Japan in World War II. Some fifteen hundred college campuses as well as ten thousand elementary and secondary schools scheduled programs. The National Educational Association estimated that about ten million schoolchildren participated in some kind of environmental activity for the day. Also, about two thousand communities planned environment-related ceremonies.

Seven months earlier, Senator Nelson had mentioned the idea of an environmental teach-in while giving a speech in Seattle. He chose April 22, the date when many states commemorated Arbor Day; he took the teach-in idea from the anti-Vietnam War activities common at the time. Nelson, like other observers, knew that there was increasing concern about all aspects of pollution and ecological damage, but he was pleasantly surprised by the extent of the response.

The success of Earth Day was the result of several factors. By the late 1960’s, there was a growing impetus to the environmental movement. Increasingly, organizations were helping to sensitize the public to environmental problems, and an unprecedented number of publications on environmental themes were being produced by prominent writers such as Rachel Carson, Walter Udall, Lynn White, Jr., and Paul R. Ehrlich Ehrlich, Paul R. . Even more significant, Americans in many locations were witnessing the effects of environmental damage. In 1968 and 1969, members of Congress reflected public concern by considering nearly 140 environmental bills. For many people, the achievements of the Civil Rights movement represented a model for reform based on a moral appeal. In addition, the spirit of youthful rebellion embodied in the antiwar movement was inspiring parallel movements throughout society. In short, Nelson could scarcely have chosen a more auspicious context for the launching of his idea.

Earth Day was an occasion for numerous speeches, including many by the best-known spokespersons of the environmental movement. Ecologist Barry Commoner’s Commoner, Barry schedule called for him to rush between Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Brown University. Paul Ehrlich, Ralph Nader, and René Dubos were among other popular speakers. Politicians could also be seen at many rallies, and both houses of Congress adjourned for the day because so many members were attending events. Nelson spoke on nine university campuses in Wisconsin, California, and Colorado. Senator Thomas McIntyre McIntyre, Thomas , who delivered fourteen speeches in his home state of New Hampshire, set the record for the most speeches given on the day.

Although President Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M.
[p]Nixon, Richard M.;environmental policy had his press secretary announce the administration’s support for Earth Day, the president took no active part in any of the events. Conservative members of the administration suspected that the day was a means of promoting the agenda of liberal Democrats, but Nixon’s secretary of the interior, Department of the Interior, U.S. Walter J. Hickel, urged the president to proclaim a national holiday and take a more active role. Hickel later wrote that he gave “marching orders” to department personnel to visit college campuses and that fifteen hundred employees of the department did so. The White House was embarrassed when the press reported that Controller General James Bentley Bentley, James had spent $1,600 of public funds on telegrams warning of possible left-wing plots; Bentley noted that Earth Day fell on former Soviet leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin’s birthday. Bentley apologized and agreed to pay for the telegrams with his own money.

Throughout the United States, there was an impressive diversity of events; almost everywhere, the atmosphere was euphoric and theatrical. In Washington, D.C., some ten thousand young people attended a rock concert in front of the Washington Monument. The University of Wisconsin held fifty-eight separate programs. To dramatize air-pollution problems caused by internal combustion engines, several universities held enthusiastic automobile-wrecking events (called “wreck-ins”). Some localities held “bike-ins”; in New York City, traffic was closed to automobiles along Fifth Avenue for two hours. Many idealistic people, especially among the young, helped in pro-environment efforts. At the University of Washington, four hundred people planted trees and shrubs during a “plant-in” in an abandoned area near the campus. In Ohio, one thousand students from Cleveland State University gathered litter and loaded it into garbage trucks. In hundreds of communities, groups of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts held cleanup campaigns and picked up litter.

No major acts of violence marred the celebrations of Earth Day, but there were scattered incidents of militancy. At Boston’s Logan Airport, thirteen demonstrators were arrested for blocking traffic to protest a proposed expansion of the airport. In Washington, D.C., some twenty-five hundred demonstrators assembled before the Department of the Interior to protest the approval of oil leases. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a sit-in to protest the presence of job recruiters from Ford Motor Company, while at the University of Texas, twenty-six students were arrested for perching in trees in an attempt to prevent the trees’ destruction.

A number of state legislatures took the occasion to pass environmental legislation. The Massachusetts legislature approved a measure proclaiming the right to enjoy an unpolluted environment. The governors of New York and New Jersey signed legislation that established environmental departments, while the governor of Maryland signed twenty-one bills and resolutions that dealt with the environment.


Many thoughtful people consider Earth Day 1970 the beginning of the contemporary environmental movement. While there is much truth to this view, it should also be noted that Earth Day took place at a time when the news media and the educated public were increasingly concerned about pollution, toxic wastes, population growth, and related issues. It is probably more accurate to consider Earth Day as the first serious indication that the environmental movement enjoyed widespread support among the general public and was becoming a mainstream concern.

The great publicity generated by Earth Day 1970 helped make it “fashionable” to be considered “environmentally aware,” and for months thereafter, almost everyone claimed to be an environmentalist, including conspicuous consumers and some of the nation’s worst polluters. Veterans of the movement tended to express indignation when businesses such as General Motors and Standard Oil began to exploit Earth Day and environmental awareness in promoting products. As environmentalism was becoming more mainstream, however, it was inevitable that the concept would be interpreted in diverse ways.

It is clearly impossible to measure the later influence of Earth Day 1970 with any accuracy. One can, however, say that the day was a landmark event that helped popularize the environmental message. In a Gallup Poll of 1965, only 17 percent of responding Americans said they considered the reduction of air and water pollution to be one of the three most pressing problems demanding governmental action. Immediately after Earth Day, the comparable figure reached 53 percent of respondents. (By 1980, the figure had fallen to 24 percent.)

As the day progressed and came to an end, many observed that Earth Day was almost as noncontroversial as Mother’s Day. The press generally ridiculed the Daughters of the American Revolution Daughters of the American Revolution for suggesting that the day was directed by “subversive” elements and that the reports on pollution were “distorted and exaggerated.” Before the event, an editorial in The New Republic had made light of Earth Day as part of the “ecology craze”; after observing the event, the magazine changed its view, noting that Earth Day had been a worthwhile effort that had “signaled an awakening to the dangers in a dictatorship of technology.”

The 1970 celebration of Earth Day tended to be a predominantly white, middle-class affair. Many African Americans African Americans;and environmentalism[environmentalism] were suspicious that the day would detract from issues of racial and economic justice. While such views did not completely disappear, they soon declined. In 1969, polls indicated that 33 percent of African Americans wanted the government to pay more attention to environmental issues; by 1976, some 58 percent of African Americans expressed this viewpoint. The broad appeal of events such as Earth Day helped cause such changes in perception.

During Earth Day, people of moderation often expressed apprehension at the revolutionary rhetoric used in some of the speeches. Many speakers declared that Earth Day was a “turning point” and the beginning of a “new American ethic,” while others referred to a “revolution in consciousness” and evoked images of an abandonment of civilization. With the perspective of time, it is clear that no national revolution occurred on April 22, 1970; it was, nevertheless, a good day for the environmental movement, and many observers came away from the day more aware and more knowledgeable.

After Earth Day, one of the questions most often asked was whether the event was merely a fad. Without doubt, there were some faddish, trendy elements in the celebrations, and it would be impossible to sustain the level of enthusiasm for the environment that characterized the day. The important point, however, is that Earth Day 1970 was devoted to a consideration of problems deeply rooted in reality. “It can’t be a fad,” said Senator Nelson, “because it becomes more difficult to breathe each day.” Twenty years later, on April 22, 1990, a second Earth Day celebration was observed by people in more than 140 nations, demonstrating the ever-mounting concern for environmental issues. Earth Day

Further Reading

  • Christofferson, Bill. The Man from Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. A biography of Gaylord Nelson that explores his environmentalism and his work as a U.S. senator.
  • Dudley, William, ed. The Environment. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Greenhaven Press, 2006. Chapter 3 in this environmental studies collection is devoted to environmentalism and related policy issues in the light of Earth Day 1970. Presented in a pro-versus-con format.
  • Dunlop, John, and Angela Mertig, eds. American Environmentalism: The U.S. Environmental Movement, 1970-1990. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis, 1992. Interesting collection of articles on public opinion, organization, and other aspects of the movement, emphasizing its increasing diversity.
  • Environmental Action. Earth Day—The Beginning: A Guide for Survival. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. A good contemporary account of the event, with much material about the motivating ideas and perceptions of the time.
  • Fox, Stephen. The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy. 1981. Reprint. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. An excellent intellectual history of the movement from 1890 to 1975, including a perceptive interpretation of Earth Day.
  • Hayes, Denis. The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000. Earth Day teach-in organizer Denis Hayes provides a guide to “fixing” planet Earth.
  • Hickel, Walter J. Who Owns America? Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971. Many personal observations about the environmental movement and youth by the U.S. secretary of the interior at the time of Earth Day 1970. Contains criticisms of Nixon administration policies.
  • Nelson, Gaylord. “Pollution and a Concerned Public.” Current History 59 (July, 1970): 31-35. A call to action, and a good example of the rhetoric of the “father” of Earth Day.
  • Nelson, Gaylord, Susan Campbell, and Paul Wozniak. Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise. Foreword by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002. A retrospective on Earth Day and on the environmental movement by Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson. In the book Nelson recommends that U.S. presidents give a “state of the environment” speech annually.
  • Odell, Rice. Environmental Awakening: The New Revolution to Protect the Earth. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1980. Includes a short but good account of the movement from the 1960’s to 1970. Written with the conviction that a revolution in environmental consciousness occurred.
  • Scheffer, Victor B. The Shaping of Environmentalism in America. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991. An excellent scholarly account of the social history of the movement from 1960 to 1980, with a good summary of Earth Day.

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