‘Mankind seeking its own survival’
“Good evening, a unique day in American history is ending. A day set aside for a nationwide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival.”
—Those were the words of news anchor Walter Cronkite as he described the aftermath of the first Earth Day back in 1970.
Earth Day is an international day devoted to our planet. It draws attention to the environment and promotes conservation and sustainability.
Each year on April 22, around 1 billion individuals across more than 190 countries take action to raise awareness of the climate crisis and bring about behavioral change to protect the environment. In 2020, Earth Day celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Participation in Earth Day can take many forms, including small home or classroom projects like planting a herb garden or picking up litter. People also volunteer to plant trees, join other ecological projects or take part in street protests about climate change.
Official Earth Day campaigns and projects aim to increase environmental literacy and bring together like-minded people or groups to address issues such as deforestation, biodiversity loss and other challenges.
Millions of people took to the streets of US cities and towns on April 22, 1970 in mass protests over the damage being done to the planet and its resources.
Amid the demonstrations, protesters brought New York City’s usually bustling Fifth Avenue to a halt, while students in Boston held a “die-in” at Logan airport.
The environmental impact of the post-war consumer boom was beginning to be felt at that time. Oil spills, factory pollution, toxic spills and other ecological threats were on the rise, with little if any legislation in place to prevent them.
The protests brought together people from all walks of American life – accounting for about 10% of the US population – to demonstrate and voice their demands for sustainable change. The Earth Day website calls it the birth of the modern environmental movement.
Concerned about increasing levels of unchecked environmental destruction, Junior Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin suggested a series of “teach-ins” on university campuses across the US in 1969 to raise awareness of environmental threats.
Nelson was joined by Congressman Pete McCloskey and activist Denis Hayes to organize the teach-ins, but the group soon recognized an opportunity to broaden the event’s appeal beyond student populations.
The newly named Earth Day protest events attracted national media attention and support from around 20 million Americans across age and political spectrums, occupations and income groups.
The Earth Day demonstrations left an indelible mark on US policy. By the end of 1970, the US Environmental Protection Agency came into being and a stream of laws followed to help protect the environment. These included the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Clean Air Act.
Further legislation was soon introduced to protect water quality, endangered species and to control the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides.
Earth Day went beyond the US in 1990. Around 200 million people from 141 countries joined efforts to boost recycling around the world that year, paving the way for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
This “Earth Summit”, as it became known, led to the formation of the UN Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, along with the Commission on Sustainable Development to monitor and report on the implementation of Earth Summit agreements.
As the millennium loomed, Denis Hayes and the Earth Day movement turned their attention to the growing reality of the impending climate crisis with a clear message for world leaders: urgent action is needed to address global warming.
It’s a message that is just as relevant today. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that without further immediate action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the world is on course for temperatures 3.2°C above pre-industrial levels. This level of warming would be catastrophic for the planet and all life on it, including humans.
Now a truly global movement, Earth Day has become a leading light in the fight to combat climate change, raising awareness of environmental issues and providing a forum for people to get involved. Our survival could depend on it.