The unofficial Earth Day Flag

Earth Day is a day designed to inspire awareness and appreciation for the Earth‘s environment. It was founded by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson as an environmental teach-in in 1970 and is celebrated in many countries every year. Earth Day is celebrated in spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. Many communities celebrate Earth Week, an entire week of activities focused on environmental issues.

In the United States, Earth Day is celebrated each year on April 22. The United Nations celebrates Earth Day each year on the spring equinox, which is often 20 March. This is a tradition which was founded by peace activist John McConnell in 1969. The first governmental recognition of Earth Day, authorized by the city San Francisco, was on the spring equinox in 1970. The United Nations adopted this holiday the next year and celebrated Earth Day for the first time on the spring equinox in 1971.

The First Earth Day

U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin announced his idea for a nationwide teach-in day on the environment in a speech to a fledgling conservation group in Seattle on 20 September 1969, and then again six days later in Atlantic City to a meeting of the United Auto Workers. Senator Nelson hoped that a grassroots outcry about environmental issues might prove to Washington, D.C. just how distressed Americans were in every constituency. When grassroots activities ballooned beyond the capacity of his Senate office staff, Nelson staffed a temporary office with college students and appointed Denis Hayes as coordinator of activities[1], but it soon became clear that Earth Day was a full-blown movement. There were autonomous groups organizing in cities large and small including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, Des Moines, Albuquerque, and many more.[2] Nelson and his staff did not have the time nor resources to organize the estimated 20 million demonstrators and thousands of schools and local communities that participated.[3]

Media coverage of the first Earth Day included a 1-hour special report on CBS News called “Earth Day: A Question of Survival,” with correspondents reporting from a dozen major cities across the country, and narrated by Walter Cronkite (whose backdrop was the Earth Week of Philadelphia’s logo).[4] The largest segment of the special report (1/3 of the hour-long program) focused on Earth Week in Philadelphia.

Earth Week

Earth Week Logo

Earth Week, April 16-22, originated in Philadelphia in 1970. It was created by a committee of students (mostly from University of Pennsylvania), professionals, leaders of grass roots organizations and businessmen concerned about the environment and inspired by Senator Gaylord Nelson’s call for a national environmental teach-in. The Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia concluded that devoting only one day to the environment would not provide enough time and space to paint a comprehensive picture of the environmental issues confronting mankind.[6]

Austan Librach, a regional planning graduate student, assumed the role of Committee Chairman and hired Edward Furia, who had just received his City Planning and Law Degrees from University of Pennsylvania, to be Project Director. The core group from Penn was joined in 1970 by students from other area colleges, as well as from other community, church and business groups which, working together, organized scores of educational activities, scientific symposia and major mass media events in the Delaware Valley Region in and around Philadelphia. The Earth Week Committee of 33 members settled on a common objective—to raise public awareness of environmental problems and their potential solutions.[7]

U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie, author of the historic Clean Air Act of 1970 and sponsor of pending landmark water pollution legislation, was the keynote speaker on Earth Day in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia.[8] Other notable attendees included consumer protection activist and presidential candidate Ralph Nader; Landscape Architect Ian McHarg; Nobel prize-winning Harvard Biochemist, George Wald; U.S. Senate Minority Leader, Hugh Scott; and poet, Allen Ginsberg. Forty years later, the Earth Week Committee decided to make rare photos, video and other previously unpublished information about the history of Earth Week 1970 available to the public at EarthWeek.us.

Many cities now extend the observance of Earth Day events to an entire week, usually starting on April 16 and ending on Earth Day, April 22.[9] These events are designed to encourage environmentally-aware behaviors, such as recycling, using energy efficiently, and reducing or reusing disposable items.[10]