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Origins of Earth Day

The First Earth Day

The first Earth Day was proclaimed in San Francisco by Mayor Joseph Alioto on March 21, 1970. The idea for this global holiday to recognize Earth was first introduced by newspaper publisher and activist, John McConnell. In November 1969, at a UNESCO conference ("Man and his Environment: A View Towards Survival") held in San Francisco, McConnell suggested an annual observance to remind the people of Earth of their shared responsibility as environmental stewards. He chose the vernal equinox because on March 20 to 21 night and day are of equal length everywhere on Earth. McConnell believed that marking this time of equilibrium could inspire people to put aside their differences and recognize their common need to preserve Earth's resources.

February 26, 1971, United Nations Secretary-General U Thant supported McConnell's Earth Day initiative for a worldwide annual celebration by signing a UN proclamation in which he says:

"May there only be peaceful and cheerful Earth Days to come for our beautiful Spaceship Earth as it continues to spin and circle in frigid space with its warm and fragile cargo of animate life."

In 1972, Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim observed March 21 as Earth Day again with a United Nations ceremony, and the annual UN Earth Day ceremony has continued ever since. Each year, the UN celebrates Earth Day by ringing the Peace Bell at their headquarters in New York at the precise moment of the vernal equinox.

"Earth Day is the first holy day which transcends all national borders, yet preserves all geographical integrities, spans mountains and oceans and time belts, and yet brings people all over the world into one resonating accord, is devoted to the preservation of the harmony in nature and yet draws upon the triumphs of technology, the measurement of time, and instantaneous communication through space."
 Margaret Mead, 1978

Two Earth Days?

There is another Earth Day which is also observed on April 22. On this observance of Earth Day, the birth of the modern environmental movement in the United States in 1970 is commemorated with annual celebrations throughout the USA and many other countries. (This April 22nd Earth Day global event also has UN support.)

In September 1969, at a conference in Seattle, US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin announced that a nationwide grassroots environmental protest to thrust the environment onto the national agenda was being organized for the following spring. The Senator hired a Harvard University student, Denis Hayes, to coordinate the massive demonstration. Broad support Nelson's cause to protect the environment spread rapidly.

"Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation's campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam … a national day of observance of environmental problems … is being planned for next spring … when a nationwide environmental 'teach-in' … coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned. …"
 Gladwin Hill, The New York Times,
  Sunday, November 30, 1969

Two thousand colleges and universities, approximately ten thousand primary and secondary schools, and hundreds of communities throughout the United States organized protests to protect the environment. Groups that had been fighting to stop oil spills, pollution from factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife were suddenly galvanized. On April 22, 1970, over 20 million protesters took part in a nationwide, peaceful, grassroots demonstration for environmental reform and sparked a new, popular social consciousness of ecology and the environment.

This first Earth Day demonstration brought immediate changes in US legislation. In 1970, President Richard Nixon created Environmental Protection Agency with a mission to protect the environment and public health; and US Congress amended the Clean Air Act, setting national standards to improve air quality, cut auto emissions, and reduce pollution. In 1972, US Congress passed the Clean Water Act, limiting raw sewage and other pollutants flowing into rivers, lakes, and streams.

Earth Day Now

On April 22, 1990, Earth Day took environmental concerns into the global arena. Some 200 million people were mobilized in 141 countries which resulted in massive support for recycling efforts worldwide and set the stage for the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

For Earth Day (April 22) 2000, activists utilized the Internet to link 5,000 environmental groups throughout the world, which resulted in hundreds of millions of people participating in Earth Day events in a record 184 countries.

In 2007, an estimated billion people participated in Earth Day activities in thousands of of cities such as Kiev (Ukraine), Caracas (Venezuela), Vaiaku (Tuvalu), Manila (Philippines), Lomé (Togo), Madrid (Spain), London (UK) and New York (USA).

According to the non-profit, international Earth Day Network (EDN), April 22 is celebrated as Earth Day in 175 countries, and is now "the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a half billion people every year." Earth Day Network (founded by the organizers of the first Earth Day held on April 22, 1970) is a major force promoting global environmental awareness and reaches over 17,000 organizations worldwide. The EDN also engages 5,000 groups and more than 25,000 educators throughout the USA, coordinating millions of community development and environmental protection projects.


Earth Day Vancouver © 2009. Earth Day Vancouver
Last modified: Apr. 21, 2010
Created: Mar. 18, 2009