Although Earth Day has been commonly associated with U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, and Congressman Pete McCloskey of California, it has been alleged that the concept originated initially in 1969 with John McConnell at an UNESCO conference held in San Francisco. Whatever were the origins, it is clear that this event has deeply resonated with people across the globe.
The history of Earth Day holds that the first event happened on April 22, 1970, with 20 Million participants around the world. That number since since grown to over 500 Million, with the participation of numerous national governments and 175 countries. And perhaps what made even more impact than those famous demonstrations, along with the “teach-ins” and cleaning up of so many places across the country by the approximately 20 million people participating that first historic event, was the bipartisan political action which followed.
Many student leaders identified what they called the “Dirty Dozen,” members of the Congress and Senate whose environmental records were atrocious, and whose seats were vulnerable. These student leaders actively campaigned against the targeted legislators, not only holding letter-writing crusades, but also walking the precincts where the voters were who held the sway. By election day of 1972, seven of that ”dirty dozen” had been kicked out of office; those replaced were five Republicans, and two senior Democrats. To quote Mr. McClosky, “That just had an enormous effect. The environment had proved it could deliver votes.”
When Senator Gaylord Nelson was first elected to office in 1962, he was already deeply concerned by the fact that the environment was not on any political agenda, although normal citizens were increasingly aware of the disturbing effects that matters such as pollution were having on the environment and human health.
This environmental issue stayed on the back burner for seven years, making the history of Earth Day that much more compelling, until Senator Nelson invited people from all walks of life in 1969 to join him the following year to a grassroots demonstration raising awareness about environmental issues. April 22, 1970 marked the first day in the history of Earth Day.
The response was intensely overwhelming. Rallies were held across the nation, and by the time the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a poll in 1971, a full 25% indicated that protecting the environment was an important goal to them.
March 21, 1970 was furthermore declared by San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto as International Earth Day, celebrated on the March equinox, which tends to fall around March 20. The listed founder is John McConnell.
Earth Day 1970 launched the environmental movement across the country and beyond, by harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of college students. In 2003, former Congressman Pete McCloskey, co-sponsor of that first Earth Day, sees the need to do it all over again. Mr. McCloskey credits Mr. Hayes and Sen. Nelson with making Earth Day happen. He was recruited as a rare, like-minded Republican to co-sponsor the event in the House of Representatives.
The Earth Day Network is now is the coordinating group for the movement, and under its Canopy Project, saw 1 Million trees planted in 2010, with over 50 Million for 2011. The Billion Acts of Green campaign is still continuing.
Whatever the origins of Earth Day may be, the most striking fact about this global event is that it somehow managed to organize itself.