In 1962, Senator Gaylord Nelson attempted to move environmental awareness to the political mainstream by proposing a platform of issues to Robert and John Kennedy. The platform was embraced by the administration, but other pressing world issues moved it to the background. Six years would pass before the idea that became Earth Day occurred to Senator Nelson while on a conservation speaking tour out West in the summer of 1969. At the time, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, called “teach-ins,” had spread to college campuses all across the nation. Suddenly, it occurred to the senator to attempt a similar grassroots protest over what was happening to the environment.
In September 1969, Nelson announced that in the spring of 1970 there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment. The wire services carried the story from coast to coast. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air – and they did so with spectacular exuberance. For the next four months, two members of Nelson’s Senate staff managed Earth Day affairs out of the Senate office.
Five months before Earth Day, on Sunday, November 30, 1969, The New York Times carried a lengthy article by Gladwin Hill reporting on the astonishing proliferation of environmental events, further bolstering the Earth Day momentum. The senate office staff could not keep up with the telephone calls, paper work, inquiries, etc. In mid-January, three months before Earth Day, John Gardner, Founder of Common Cause, provided temporary space for a Washington, D.C. headquarters. Nelson staffed the office with college students and selected Denis Hayes as coordinator of activities.
As a result, on the 22nd of April, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.
Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. “It was a gamble,” Nelson recalled, “but it worked.”
As 1990 Earth Day went global, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries and lifting environmental issues onto the world stage. Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It also prompted President Bill Clinton to award Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1995) – the highest honor given to civilians in the United States – for his role as Earth Day founder.
As the millennium approached, the campaign focused on global warming and a push for clean energy. With 5,000 environmental groups in a record 184 countries reaching out to hundreds of millions of people, Earth Day 2000 combined the big-picture feistiness of the first Earth Day with the international grassroots activism of Earth Day 1990. It used the Internet to organize activists, but also featured a talking drum chain that traveled from village to village in Gabon, Africa, and hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
Much like 1970, Earth Day 2010 came at a time of great challenge for the environmental community. In spite of the challenge, for its 40th anniversary, Earth Day Network reestablished Earth Day as a powerful focal point around which people could demonstrate their commitment. Earth Day Network brought 225,000 people to the National Mall for a Climate Rally, amassed 40 million environmental service actions toward its 2012 goal of A Billion Acts of Green®, launched an international, 1-million tree planting initiative with Avatar director James Cameron and tripled its online base to over 900,000 community members.