The History of Earth Day: From 1970 to Now

By Torrin Greathouse | April 22, 2015

While the late 1960s in America are seen today as a rich period of radical political activism and protests against war and inequality, it is often forgotten that the environmental movement gained a prominent place in the public sphere alongside these popular social movements.

Environmentalism in 1960s America

A number of notable thinkers from the 1960s spoke out against the poor treatment of the environment, including historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who publicly criticized the wasteful consumerism of post-war America, as well as conservationist Rachel Carson, who published Silent Spring in 1962, a book which brought environmental issues to the attention of the American public at large.

In the early 1960s, even as pollution was affecting the nation at large, environmental issues were considered the exclusive responsibility of local governments. President Dwight D. Eisenhower vetoed a clean water act in 1960, just as he was leaving office, and President John F. Kennedy did little more to improve environmental quality. Although Kennedy gave some support to local and state governments to acquire open land and appointed Stewart Udall, an enthusiastic conservationist, to secretary of the interior, his contribution was small in comparison to his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Johnson, influenced by Schlesinger and Galbraith, made environmental protection a higher priority and considered the Federal government responsible for the preservation and conservation of the American environment. He created two Federal agencies, The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration and the National Air Pollution Control Administration, which pushed for legislation to protect the environment.

The First Earth Day

During the time when Kennedy was keeping environmentalism on the sidelines of his policy-making, a Democrat Senator from Wisconsin named Gaylord Nelson made land and water conservation the central concern of his 1960 campaign. And in January of 1969, after bearing witness to a massive oil spill that ravaged the coast of Santa Barbara, Nelson began to make plans for a nationwide demonstration that would drive environmental protection into the spotlight. Inspired by the zeal of student anti-war protesters, he started to organize his action.

Nelson recruited a conservation minded Republican Congressman, Pete McCloskey, as his co-chair and a former student activist, the then twenty-five year-old Denis Hayes, as national coordinator of the event. They began to assemble a staff of more than 80 organizers across the country. On April 22, 1970, demonstrators gathered on streets and in parks and stadiums from coast to coast for this dramatic turning-point in environmental activism. On the first national Earth Day, nearly 20 million Americans demonstrated under a single banner for environmental issues.

In response to this national outcry, at the beginning of 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, and by the end of the year, he formed the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order. Soon after these changes were made, three of our most fundamental conservation bills were signed into law, the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Continuing to Expand

In 1990, Hayes, who had a leading role in organizing the first Earth Day, was called once again by environmental leaders to coordinate the campaign. Their new goal however, was far loftier than the first: to move Earth Day to the world stage, making it an international event.

On Earth Day in 1990, nearly 200 million demonstrators in 141 countries united to spur on international recycling efforts, one of the main focuses of the campaign, as well as pave the path for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit, where the 108 countries present agreed on international standards for sustainable development and a treatise on international policy regarding climate change.

Earth Day Today

Earth Day continues to act as a day of popular, mass campaigning for environmental policy changes and for increased awareness of the sustainability issues we currently face. This year marks the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day, as well as what the United Nations has declared the International Year of Light.

This years’ goals are to pressure international government leaders to agree on a plan that will cut our emissions and limit the already immense effects of global warming, as well as to push for more sustainable building design worldwide.

At Ciralight, we are dedicated to sustainable design and we celebrate "Earth Day" and the "International Year of Light" by bringing our earth saving, energy saving solar-tracking skylights, the Ciralight SunTracker™ to people and places around the globe.  The Ciralight SunTracker™ provides off-the-grid lighting for commercial buildings, airporst and schools by combining solar power, GPS technology, mirrors and lens to drive abundant natural light into buidlings that is FREE, healthy, and diffused off the grid lighting for up to 10+ hours per day.


For more information about Ciralight SunTrackers, visit our website or contact us today.


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