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A History and Overview of Earth Day

Earth Day is Celebrated Around the World on April 22


Earth Day

Earth Day is an opportunity to celebrate our planet.

John Foxx/Getty Images
Updated April 01, 2009
Earth Day is a holiday designed to raise awareness of environmental problems and foster an appreciation for the Earth and the natural environment. The United States government defines the holiday as a time to celebrate gains, create new visions, and accelerate progress for environmental change.

Earth Day is held yearly in the spring in the northern hemisphere (fall in the southern hemisphere.) Although April 22nd is the much publicized date of the holiday, the day is actually the second Earth Day, founded by United States Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970. Today, the holiday is celebrated by many countries worldwide on April 22. The first Earth Day on the March equinox (March 21) was established in 1969 by peace activist John McConnell. Today, that holiday is celebrated on the March equinox primarily by the United Nations.

History of Earth Day

The Equinoctial Earth Day

The equinoctial Earth Day was first introduced by John McConnell at a UNESCO Conference on the Environment in San Francisco, California in 1969. McConnell’s proposal for this global holiday was created to celebrate life on Earth but also to make people aware of the need to preserve the environment and protect the various ecosystems life depends on.

In September 1969, McConnell proposed his idea to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and on March 21, 1970, San Francisco mayor Joseph Alioto issued the first Earth Day proclamation. Following this proclamation, San Francisco and many other cities began having Earth Day celebrations.

To spread his global Earth Day idea further, McConnell later wrote another Earth Day proclamation for worldwide use and explained the responsibility of people all over the world to protect their environment. This document garnered the support of concerned leaders worldwide and on February 26, 1971 U.N. Secretary General U Thant was among the first to sign.

Since the signing of the Earth Day proclamation, the United Nations Earth Day ceremony as it has come to be known has occurred yearly on the March equinox (on or around March 20th). This date was chosen for the holiday because the equinox marks the exact astronomical mid-spring in the Northern Hemisphere and mid-autumn in the Southern. In most cultures, these days (along with the solstices) separate the Earth’s seasons.

Each year at the exact moment of equinox, (the time during the day when the exact center of the sun is directly above the equator, thus giving both hemispheres the same amount of sunlight), the United Nations Earth Day is observed by ringing the Japanese Peace Bell at the U.N. headquarters in New York City. More recently, ceremonies and bell ringings (organized by the Earth Society Foundation) have taken place in other places such as California, Lithuania, New Zealand, Paris, Tokyo, and Vienna.

The April 22nd Earth Day

The more publicized and widely celebrated Earth Day by contrast happens annually on April 22nd. It originated with U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson in September 1969 at a conference in Seattle, Washington. There, Nelson announced that there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on the environment. He is said to have chosen this day as it would be easier for students at colleges and universities to participate and April 22 does not conflict with any other major holidays.

This idea however, also came out of a time of tremendous eco-activism in the United States. For example, in 1962, Rachel Carson wrote her book, Silent Spring, to raise awareness of the dangers of pesticides on the environment. In 1964, the U.S. government passed the Wilderness Act to protect around nine million acres of wilderness.

At the time of his declaration, Senator Nelson was mainly concerned with the problems of overpopulation on the environment but on November 30, 1969, journalist Gladwin Hill, published an article in the New York Times focusing on other environmental problems. This article raised further awareness of such issues and on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day took place with the participation of approximately 20 million Americans.

During this first holiday, Denis Hayes, the Earth Day coordinator appointed by Nelson, organized rallies all over the United States and colleges and universities organized protests against environmental problems.

The success of Earth Day in 1970 then led to global participation in later events as Hayes, and members of various environmental groups worked to bring such issues to the world stage. In 1990 for instance, recycling was the highlighted issue. In 2000, it was raising awareness of global warming and the need for clean energy sources. Earth Day 2007 was also one of the biggest events thus far with around one billion participants worldwide.

Earth Day Today

Today, the Earth Day Network, founded by members of the original holiday in 1970, promotes environmental citizenship year round but focuses on connecting different organizations and telling citizens what they can do to have a positive impact on the environment such as saving energy, using less water, and recycling. Additionally, because of the success of Earth Day, some places such as Chicago and UC Berkeley have begun celebrating Earth Week.

Criticisms of Earth Day

Despite the successes of Earth Day, there have also been some criticisms of the holiday. Most of the critics say that Earth Day has simply become a ritual promoting the idea of protecting the environment and publicizing problems but it does not really set forth any permanent changes that will have a positive effect on environmental sustainability.

Even with these criticisms though, Earth Day on April 22 and the smaller celebrations in March have been successful of at least making the public more aware of environmental problems. These are also significant in that they are the only holidays celebrated by people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, races, religions, and nationalities.

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