As we draw nearer to the 50th Earth Day on April 22, it is worth reflecting on the history and legacy that it represents. Earth Day is one of the most visible and effective environmentalist campaigns in American history. Understanding how it came to be and how it has operated over the last five decades is an important piece of understanding federal environmental policy. With that in mind, here is an overview of the history of Earth Day.

How It Started

Like many major reform-minded movements in American history, Earth Day began as a response to a crisis. On January 28, 1969, an oil platform 6 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California blew up, causing a massive amount of oil to spill out over eight days. Toxic black sludge covered 800 square miles of ocean, degrading natural habitats and causing untold environmental damage. At least 3,800 birds died as a result of the spill, and intertidal organisms like barnacles suffered losses of up to 90% in some parts of the spill (per the University of California, Santa Barbara). American attention was focused on the environment in a way that it had never been before.

On January 1, 1970, responding to political pressures, President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law, which would come to provide the framework for American federal environmental policy. NEPA's three stated goals are:

  1. "To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment."
  2. "To promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man."
  3. "To enrich our understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation."

Politicians like Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, partnering with grassroots organizers from around the nation, were able to harness environmentalism's newfound popularity to create the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Some 20 million students and activists took to the streets in peaceful protest on behalf of better environmental regulations and ecological preservation. That was the start of the Earth Day movement, one that persists to this day.

That first Earth Day showed that environmental activism on a broad scale was not only possible but powerful, as people across the spectrum of American life demanded that the right to a decent environment be adopted as a fundamental aim of society. The demonstration marked more than a national holiday for the Earth. It was about the people sending a message and setting an agenda.

by Senator Nelson

Green Legislation: 1970 - 2020

Earth Day's impact is seen in some of the landmark environmental legislation passed over the last half-century. This is a (far from exhaustive) list of some of the most important pieces of federal environmental law:

  • Endangered Species Act (1973) - Protects animal populations threatened by "economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation"
  • Clean Water Act (1977) - Protects waterways from illegal contamination by individuals or businesses
  • Pollution Prevention Act (1990) - Focused on mitigating sources of pollution, rather than just their downstream effects
  • Energy Independence and Security Act (2007) - Provided funding for biofuel research, and stipulated greater automobile efficiency standards

Each of these laws, along with the many hundreds more passed at the federal, state, and local levels in the last fifty years, has helped to combat pollution, fight climate change, and make American industry more sustainable.

Of course, more work is needed. Hopefully, a broader understanding of the context from which Earth Day was born illustrates its necessity. In the words of Senator Nelson, writing decades after that day in 1970: "That first Earth Day showed that environmental activism on a broad scale was not only possible but powerful, as people across the spectrum of American life demanded that the right to a decent environment be adopted as a fundamental aim of society. The demonstration marked more than a national holiday for the Earth. It was about the people sending a message and setting an agenda." Participating in Earth Day activities places you into that legacy, one that continues to have a powerful impact 50 years later.

Wondering how you can participate in Earth Day this year? Check out our website to learn new ways to give back to the earth in the wake of COVID-19. 

​Blog Post Written By Dan Matz, Programs Intern.