Earth Day began in 1970 through the concerned action of Democratic Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, father of the environmental movement in the U. S. Nelson had witnessed the devastation wrought by a massive oil spill in San Diego in 1969, and was acutely aware of the dangers of environmental degradation across the nation. Nelson was inspired by the ‘teach ins’ and protests against the Vietnam War to do something creative and positive about the increasing air and water pollution. Pollution was rampant. Environmental degradation was blatant, dirty, unregulated, and growing.
Rachel Carson’s pioneering book, SILENT SPRING, had been published in 1962, and rocked consciousness. It sold half a million copies in 24 countries, opening the awareness that our health and future, and the health of nature are inextricably linked, for better or worse.
Even so, on a nationwide basis at that time, few were talking about the environment in 1970, and Senator Nelson knew the environment had to have national attention. He built a small team with a conservation minded republican, and activist Denis Hayes as the national coordinator, and announced the event to the national media. Hayes hired a national staff of 85 people to coordinate events across the nation. It was amazingly successful. The time was right. The idea rocketed onto the national and global scene. This event led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and the Endangered Species Acts.
In 1990 for the twentieth anniversary, a group of environmental leaders asked Hayes to take Earth Day around the world. Ultimately Hayes expanded the Earth Day Network to more than 180 nations, mobilizing over 200 million people! Earth Day continues to grow into Earth Weeks, Earth Months, and an essential Earth based consciousness.
As the Founder of Earth Day, Senator Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, the highest-level award given to a civilian in the US.
It is truly remarkable what a single person with a brilliant idea, determination, and follow through can accomplish. Amazing! Bravo Senator Gaylord Nelson, and thank you!