The History of Earth Day

Earth Day 2000 Fact Sheet

The History of Earth Day

April 22, 2000 marks the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, which was invented to commemorate environmental awareness.

Much about the environment has changed for the better since the first Earth Day in 1970.

The first Earth Day represented the culmination of growing public concern over a series of well-publicized environmental disasters in the late 1960s. In 1969, for instance, a stretch of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire as a result of industrial waste. That same year an oil rig rupture off the California coast near Santa Barbara poured 200,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean. In response to the public’s demand for action, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) organized the first Earth Day celebration, which he modeled on the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins of the late 1960s. By some estimates, 20 million Americans participated in environmental rallies, demonstrations and other activities on that first Earth Day. That Earth Day event set the stage for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the adoption of major environmental laws such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

Since 1970, the popularity of Earth Day has been declining as typified by the 1994 Earth Day celebrations which drew less than one million people. Environmentalists say this is largely due to the fact that the movement has achieved the goals it set for itself in 1970. The amount of oil spilled in the nation’s waterways, for instance, has dropped from 22 million gallons per year during the mid-1970s to just 2 million gallons in 1992. As a result of such improvements, environmentalists say that it is increasingly difficult to mobilize people to address the movement’s new goals, such as reducing "greenhouse gas" emissions to deal with the alleged threat of man-made global warming.

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