Earth Day History

For more than four decades, people in the United States have marked April 22 as Earth Day, which celebrates the planet and promotes environmental protection. Since 1990, it has been a global event that is said to be the largest secular holiday in the world, with more than a billion observers.


What is today known as Earth Day was founded in 1970 by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson. The stirrings of the ecology movement had begun in the 1960s, largely due to theEarth Day 1970 in New York City publication of “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s 1962 book about the environmental impacts of the pesticide DDT. Seizing upon the tactics of the anti-Vietnam War movement, Nelson hoped to use public demonstrations to bring environmental issues to the national attention and into the political arena. The date of April 22 was chosen in order to maximize the participation of college students in what Nelson termed “teach-ins,” and, with the help of national coordinator Denis Hayes, Earth Day events involving 20 million people were organized across the country.

Going Global

Over the years, Earth Day continued to grow, and in 1990, Hayes was tapped to organize the 20th-year event, which took Earth Day global to 200 million people in 141 countries. At the 30-year mark, Hayes led the push for awareness about global warming and clean energy in an Earth Day that reached 184 countries. On Earth Day 2010, around quarter of a million people gathered at the National Mall in Washington DC for a Climate Rally.


As a result of his environmental efforts and founding of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson was presented with the National Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1995. His creation, which now is said to reach a billion people in more than 192 nations, is widely credited with leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. While some over the years have wrestled with what Earth Day is, what it should be and what its impact is, there is no doubt that it has struck a nerve with people across the globe and has helped bring environmental awareness to the mainstream.

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Jim Zelli

Jim Zelli has been with ProQuest since 1989 and with eLibrary since 2004.

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