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The History of Earth Day

Posted by Jenn Collins on April 20, 2021

As we prepare to celebrate the 51st Earth Day on April 22nd, we are reminded of the history of activism, perseverance and scientific advancements this anniversary represents. The vigor of environmental concern that first Earth Day sparked has spread from its roots as a college-level demonstration to today’s significant advances in environmental science and technology, policies and regulations directed by governmental agencies, growing environmentally-focused cabinet positions, and conversations we have with our own friends and families about the future of our planet and resources. That day of demonstration has become a force that’s only gaining steam today.

Following Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking environmental book, Silent Spring in 1962, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson created the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. His 7 months of planning blossomed into, what was at the time, the largest demonstration the US had even seen. In Nelson’s words, “Our goal is not just an environment of clear air and water and scenic beauty. … The goal is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all of human beings and all living creatures.”[1]

The original idea for the day was to organize a large demonstration on college campuses in the form of a ‘teach-in” that would be broadcasted across national media. April 22 was selected as the date since it fell between Spring Break and final exams on campuses, which would help to boost participation from students and faculty. Millions of Americans gathered to the participating colleges and schools to show their support for environmental health and in Denver, Colorado, Nelson gave his speech to express their collective concern.

The sheer number of supporters in April 1970 made it clear the American people’s concerns were potent and immediate. Over the next few years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) was founded and significant legislations were passed, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, all emblematic of the unprecedented green momentum. “Earth Day was a massive mobilizing effort: In many ways, Earth Day nurtured the first green generation”[2]—and the start of the environmental revolution.

As a part of the environmental revolution, the American Chemical Society launched its AGRO division in 1970 after realizing focusing on agricultural chemistry is very much in-line with environmental goals. Legislation and regulation of agrochemicals has lead to the development of novel chemistries and modified uses of traditional chemistries. Waterborne’s Amy Ritter, who has served as a member of the AGRO divisions Executive Committee for several years, has played a key role in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the AGRO division through the development of a historical timeline to honor the advancements in the field of agricultural chemistry.

Today, Earth Day and all that it represented is stronger than ever. All we need to do is turn on the news to see that the call to environmental action sparked over 50 years ago was certainly not short-lived. On a local level, many of us are involved in recycling efforts, small scale habitat restoration, or other initiatives in our local community. On a broader scale, the existential threat of climate change is playing out on a global stage. In January, President Biden officially named the former secretary of state John Kerry as International Climate Envoy, and former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy as National Climate Adviser.

Considering all that it has accomplished, it’s fair to say that Earth Day is not just another holiday. It is a celebration of the birth of a national awakening to the crisis of the earth we live in and both the “green generation” and “green revolution”. Through our work and our environmental values first highlighted on that day, we’re assured that current and future generations will continue to celebrate not only the earth, but the movement to protect and repair, the goal of “decency, quality, and mutual respect for all of human beings and all living creatures.”

[1] http://www.nelsonearthday.net/video/vha593_nelsonearthday.php

[2] https://academic.oup.com/envhis/article-abstract/15/2/194/499480