Earth Day: the history and impact of the environmental movement

The theme of the 2022 Earth Day is “invest in our planet”.

April 22, 2022 11:39 am | Updated 07:11 pm IST

The story so far: Every year, people across the world celebrate Earth Day on April 22 to show their support for the protection of the earth and the environment. Events on the day include plantation drives, protests, awareness sessions, competitions for children, and so on. Earth day is believed to be one of the largest civic observances in the world.

Why do we celebrate Earth Day?

The first-ever Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 and is attributed to Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. politician who served as a Governor and a Senator during his career. In 1969, Santa Barbara in California was ravaged by a massive oil spill which served as a motivation for the Senator to work towards the protection of the environment.

Senator Nelson was inspired by the student anti-war movement of the time and wanted to bring in its energy into public consciousness about pollution. He partnered with Pete McCloskey, a Republican Congressman, for a teach-in, or an informal lecture, on college campuses to spread awareness about the environment. Senator Nelson also roped in Denis Hayes, a young activist, to organise the lectures and chose April 22, a weekday between Spring Break and final examinations, to maximise attendance.

Mr. Hayes realised the potential of the exercise and wanted all Americans to benefit from it, and hence he built a national staff of 85 people to promote it far and wide. They were soon joined by others inspired to protect the environment. The lecture day was renamed Earth Day, garnering media attention and inspiring around 20 million Americans to step out on the streets against the impact of decades of industrial development with little care for the environment or its impact on human health. Earth Day registered rare support from across the political spectrum — Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban dwellers and farmers, business and labour leaders — all came together to show their support for the planet.

What was the impact of the first Earth Day?

By the end of 1970, the U.S. had set up the United States Environmental Protection Agency to take care of matters related to environmental protection. The country also passed several environment-related laws including National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act.

The Clean Water Act was passed by the U.S. Congress two years later, in 1972. This was followed by the Endangered Species Act enacted in 1973.

How did it become a global phenomenon?

Mr. Hayes was approached by environmental leaders before the 1990 Earth Day to plan a worldwide campaign. It was estimated that around 200 million people from over 140 countries would participate in activities on Earth Day. It also paved the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

In 1995, former U.S. President Bill Clinton awarded Senator Nelson with the presidential medal of freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, for his contribution towards saving the environment.

Mr. Hayes also spearheaded another global campaign for Earth Day 2000 and focused it on global warming and a demand for clean energy. Around 5,000 environmental groups in 184 countries reached out to hundreds of millions of people around the world to spread the message of environmental protection.

In 2020, the world observed the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. As most places in the world were under coronavirus lockdown at the time, the event was held digitally.

Watch | Global treaty to end plastic pollution explained

What is the theme for the 2022 Earth Day?

The theme of this year’s Earth Day is “invest in our planet”. The focus is on activities that promote a partnership between businesses, governments, and citizens for urgent action towards environmental protection in order to ensure a sustainable future.

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