The first Earth day was on April 22, 1970. 20 million Americans took to the streets to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Colleges and universities across the country organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Many groups who thought they were fighting alone to prevent things like oil spills, pollution from factories and power plants, raw sewage dumped in our waterways and toxic dumps, the use of pesticides on our food, the loss of wilderness and wildlife due to urban sprawl, suddenly realized they shared common values and were fighting a common enemy.
Earth Day was the brain child of then U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin. In this period of U.S. history there was lots of turmoil and unrest due to America's involvement in the Vietnam War. There were student protests across the country in reaction to the war efforts which were seen by many as misguided and inhumane. Nelson believed that if he could get Americans to react to the environmental dangers that were facing the country in the same way as they were reacting to the war, he could change the course of America's environmental policy.
Nelson knew that in order to get the support he needed the American public needed to be educated. No one knew the real dangers facing the world as a result of things like the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, or pollutants being poured into the nation's waterways by industry. With the help of a few prominent conservation-minded Republicans, Nelson announced a national teach-in on the environment. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.
By 1990 Earth Day had gone global with over 200 million people in over 141 countries. Environmental issues affecting the planet took center stage. The result was greater efforts in recycling and the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
A single idea by Gaylord Nelson in 1970 has grown into the largest civic event in the world. Earth Day is celebrated simultaneously around the globe by more than a billion people who participate in Earth Day campaigns every year.