Sustainability 50: Earth Day
Little did I know (long-haired rocker that I considered myself at the time), as I helped assemble public display panels on environmental issues on a campus quadrangle in the spring of 1970, that I was taking part in launching a sustainability event that would resonate around the globe ever more strongly 40 years on.
It took a Wisconsin Senator, disgusted with government inaction over a massive oil spill off the coast of California, with the assistance of a dedicated Harvard graduate student and a small group of volunteers in New York City, to crystallize the concept for the very first Earth Day.
Senator Gaylord Nelson, an early environmental activist, recognized the social consciousness raising effected by the various Vietnam War teach-ins of the late 1960s. He envisioned similar educational and public awareness campaigns on environmental issues at college campuses across the land.
Beginning in late 1969, he and other activists planned a nationwide (if not global) event for the following year. Bolstered by increasing media attention and growing volunteer efforts, Earth Day began to take shape. The New York Times announced the upcoming event; New York City Mayor Lindsay agreed to shut down 5th Avenue for it.
After an early dry run via the educational event Project Survival at Northwestern University in January of 1970, the first Earth Day took place simultaneously at thousands of U.S. colleges. Occurring on April 22, 1970, it involved an estimated 20 million Americans (including me and my display panels). The goal of preserving our precious blue marble galvanized all of those of us who had been fighting air and water pollution, industrial expansion, pesticides, sprawl, loss of wilderness, extinction of species, and environmental degradation.
Throughout its first 20 years, observance of Earth Day rippled outward from those first 20 million Americans to include over 200 million world citizens from more than 140 nations. By 2007, the influence of the event had wrapped even farther around our globe, involving an estimated 1 billion souls.
Denis Hayes (that 1970 Harvard graduate student) has since gone on to co-found Earth Day Network. That network — consisting of almost 20,000 agencies in 192 of the world’s countries — supports and promotes Earth Day observances around the planet, as well as a variety of other educational, political, social and cultural efforts geared toward environmentalism, conservation, sustainability and green principles.
Rather than on April 22nd, observance of Earth Day by the United Nations falls on the spring equinox (often March 20th). In the Southern Hemisphere, Earth Day is observed in the fall. Many locations around the globe celebrate an entire Earth Week, usually a period that culminates on April 22nd.
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