Earth Day 2008 Fact Sheet: The History of Earth Day

April 22, 2008 marks the 38th anniversary of the first observance of Earth Day, first commemorated on April 22, 1970.

Former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), Earth Day’s co-founder, said he modeled Earth Day on anti-Vietnam War demonstrations called “teach-ins” that then were common on college campuses:

“I visited Santa Barbara in the summer of 1969 to speak at a water conference, and then flew north to Berkeley to speak at a conservation conference. On the plane I read an article about the use of campus anti-war teach-ins to educate students about the Vietnam War. Suddenly the idea occurred to me: Why not devote a day to a nationwide teach-in on the environment?

Thus was born Earth Day. Eight months later, on April 22, 1970, 20 million people, 2,000 colleges and universities, 10,000 grammar and high schools and 1,000 communities mobilized for the first nationwide demonstrations on environmental problems. Congress adjourned for the day so members could attend Earth Day events in their districts. The response was nothing short of remarkable, and the modern American environmental movement took off.

My major objective in planning Earth Day 1970 was to organize a nationwide public demonstration so large it would, finally, get the attention of the politicians and force the environmental issue into the political dialogue of the nation. It worked. By the sheer force of its collective action on that one day, the American public forever changed the political landscape respecting environmental issues.”1

There is a widespread misconception that environmental progress in the United States began only at the time of the first Earth Day.  This coincided with much of the extensive federalization of environmental policy, which took place during the Nixon Administration, due to the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and passage of such laws as the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973).  In fact, as Joel M. Schwartz and Steven F. Hayward report in their book “Air Quality in America: A Dose of Reality on Air Pollution Levels, Trends, and Health Risks” (AEI Press, 2007), environmental achievements substantially pre-dated the federalization of anti-pollution policy.  Among the many examples cited by the authors: Total airborne particulate matter in Pittsburgh dropped about 50 percent between the late 1950s and 1970; ozone levels in Los Angeles began to decline by 1956; sulfur dioxide levels in New York City declined by 58 percent from 1963-1970.2


1 “A Brief History of Earth Day,” by Gaylord Nelson (1989), entered into the Congressional Record on April 20, 1990 by then-Senator David Boren (D-OK).

2 ” Air Quality in America: A Dose of Reality on Air Pollution Levels, Trends, and Health Risks,” by Joel M. Schwartz and Steven F. Hayward, AEI Press, the American Enterprise Institute, 2007.

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