Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day 2014: How It Became a Global Environmental Event

More than a billion people around the world will celebrate Earth Day on April 22, 2014—the 44th anniversary of the annual day of action.


Earth Day began in 1970, when 20 million people across the United States—that's one in ten—rallied for increased protection of the environment.


"It was really an eye-opening experience for me," Gina McCarthy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, who was a self-described self-centered teenager during the first Earth Day rallies, told National Geographic. (See pictures: "The First Earth Day—Bell-Bottoms and Gas Masks.")


"Not only were people trying to influence decisions on the Vietnam War," she recalled, "but they were beginning to really focus attention on issues like air pollution, the contamination they were seeing in the land, and the need for federal action."


At the time, she said, the environment was in visible ruins—factories legally spewed black clouds of pollutants into the air and dumped toxic waste into streams. (Learn more about air pollution.)


"I can remember the picture of the Cuyahoga River being on fire," she said, referring to the Ohio waterway choked with debris, oil, sludge, industrial wastes, and sewage that spectacularly erupted in flames on June 22, 1969, and caught the nation's attention.


Although members of the public were increasingly incensed at the lack of legal and regulatory mechanisms to thwart environmental pollution, green issues were absent from the U.S. political agenda.


First Earth Day "Took Off Like Gangbusters"


The environment's low profile frustrated U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, whose campaigns to protect it during the 1960s had fallen flat.


In 1969 Nelson hit on the idea of an environmental protest modeled after anti-Vietnam War teach-ins.


"It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country," Nelson recounted in an essay shortly before he died in July 2005 at 89. "The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air—and they did so with spectacular exuberance." (Related: "Earth Day Pictures: 20 Stunning Shots of Earth From Space.")


Nelson recruited activist Denis Hayes to organize the April 22, 1970, teach-in, which today is sometimes credited with launching the modern environmental movement.


By the end of 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had been established, and efforts to improve air and water quality were gaining political traction.


"It was truly amazing what happened," Kathleen Rogers, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Earth Day Network, told National Geographic News in 2009. "Blocks just tumbled."

John Roach
for National Geographic

PUBLISHED APRIL 21, 2014



Aflac employees picked through garbage bags in search of recyclable plastic,
aluminum, and cardboard for Earth Day last year.




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