The inaugural celebration
The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970.
Celebrations were held across the United States, with the two largest gatherings located in New York and Washington, D.C.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 20 million people participated in early Earth Day events across the country. Today, nearly a billion people celebrate Earth Day around the world.
Founding Father of Earth Day
The first Earth Day was led by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin.
A former Governor of Badger State, Nelson had a long history of promoting conservation efforts in his home state and across the country. The senator has had a number of accomplishments, such as banning DDT and preserving the Appalachian Trail.
Nelson and his Senate staff enlisted the help of law student Denis Hayes to serve as the national coordinator of Earth Day efforts.
The power of student activism
Young people made the first Earth Day possible.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Nelson and Hayes recognized the energy of student-led anti-war activism and wanted to infuse that energy with what was a relatively new environmental consciousness in the general public.
Nelson and Hayes sought to harness this environmentally focused youth energy to help advance environmental priorities in national politics.
Why April 22
The focus on making Earth Day a grassroots youth-led movement helped influence the decision to hold the first Earth Day.
According to the US Senate, Nelson’s team thought the ideal time for students would be the week of April 19-25, and they determined that students were more likely to be on campus on Wednesdays.
Combined with the greater chance of favorable spring weather conditions, Nelson’s team identified Wednesday, April 22 as the date of Earth Day in the United States.
Driving environmental policy
The first Earth Day celebration played a significant role in gaining support for environmental legislation, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The legislation included the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, which Congress passed in 1970 and 1973, respectively.
Creation of the APE
In the months following the first Earth Day, increased pressure for environmental legislation led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
According to the EPA, President Nixon announced his intention to found the EPA in July 1970, and the organization was officially created in December 1970.
A long history of preservation
The EPA and Earth Day initiatives were part of a long history of conversational efforts in the United States
In “The Evolution of the Conservation Movement” collection, the Library of Congress documents the American conservation movement beginning more than 120 years before the first Earth Day. Some of the earliest efforts to protect the environment included the designation of national parks.