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Earth Day 2011: A Brief History

Today is Earth Day. It was first observed in 1970, but its roots go back to the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book exposing the effects of pesticides and other chemical pollution on the environment.

Troubled by the lack of attention pollution was receiving on the national stage, Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson began going on speaking tours, trying to educate people and politicians about environmental issues. And while the public was concerned, the politicians didn’t pay much attention. During the late 1960s, Senator Nelson had the idea to harness the energy and methods of the student protests against the Vietnam War to organize a grassroots conservation movement. At a press conference in 1969, he announced plans for a nationwide demonstration, to take place the following spring. It was a gamble that paid off, and the public’s response was enthusiastic.

Gladwin Hill wrote in The New York Times: ‘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.’ Twenty million people nationwide participated in the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, and the government finally took notice, forming the Environmental Protection Agency and passing the Clean Air, the Clean Water, and the Endangered Species Acts.

In 1990, on the 20th anniversary, organizer Denis Hayes took Earth Day to the international arena, and coordinated events in 141 countries worldwide, boosting the awareness and practice of recycling. The year 2000 marked the first time the event was coordinated on the Internet, and the message was the need for clean energy to counteract climate change. According to the Earth Day Network, Earth Day is celebrated by a billion people, making it the world’s largest secular holiday.

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