Earth Day

Earth Day is a day early each year on which events are held to increase awareness and appreciation of the Earth’s natural environment. It is now coordinated worldwide through the Earth Day Network, founded by Dennis Hayes, and is celebrated in more than 175 countries every year. The United Nations designated April 22 as International Mother Earth Day in 2009, and will continue to be held each year on April 22 through at least 2015.

The name and concept of Earth Day was allegedly pioneered by John McConnell in 1969 at a UNESCO Conference in San Francisco. The first observed Earth Day occurred on March 21, 1970 — the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. UN Secretary General U Thant signed a Proclamation shortly thereafter, officially sanctioning the day.

However, a separate, more widely known Earth Day was founded by United States Senator Gaylord Nelson as an environmental awareness campaign and was first observed on April 22, 1970. This Earth Day occurred only in the US until 1990, when Hayes’ newly founded EDN took it international, organizing numerous events throughout 141 countries.  And now, many nations celebrate Earth Week, a week’s worth of events that lead up to Earth Day itself.

In observance of the 40th anniversary of the April 22 Earth Day, EDN created multiple global initiatives, including a Global Day of Conversation with mayors worldwide, focusing on building a green economy; Athletes for the Earth Campaign, focused on promoting Earth awareness through the voices of the professional athletic world; a Billion Acts of Green Campaign which will aggregate the millions of environmental service commitments that individuals and organizations around the world make each year;  and Artist for the Earth, a campaign that involves hundreds of arts institutions and artists worldwide to create environmental awareness. EDN mobilized 1.5 billion people in 170 countries to participate in these global events and programs for Earth Day 2010.

The initial US Earth Day was created by Nelson, then US Senator-Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the massive 1969 Santa Barbara, CA oil spill. Over 20 million people participated in the event held on April 22, 1970. Today, more than 500 million people from countries all across the globe participate in the annual Earth Day events and activities.

Nelson, an environmental and conservational activist, took a leading role in organizing the celebration, hoping to garner political support for an environmental agenda. He modeled it on the highly effective Vietnam War teach-ins of the time. Earth Day was first proposed to President Kennedy by Fred Dutton. However, Nelson decided against much of Dutton’s top-down approach, favoring a more decentralized, grassroots effort in which each community shaped its action around local concerns.

Nelson announced the idea for an Earth Day in a speech to a small conservation group in Seattle on September 20, 1969, and then again six days later in Atlantic City to a meeting of the United Auto Workers. Nelson hoped his outcries about environmental issues might prove to the District of Columbia just how distressed Americans were in every constituency. Together with the aid of  Republican Representative Paul N “Pete” McCloskey, who served as Nelson’s co-chair, he was able to incorporate a new non-profit organization — Environmental Teach-In — that would stimulate participation across the country. Both Nelson and McCloskey continued to give speeches across the country plugging the event.

On September 29, 1969, the event garnered the attention of the New York Times, which featured a long front-page story on Nelson’s efforts.  An excerpt from that article, written by Gladwin Hill, said: “Rising concern about the ‘environmental crisis’ is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam…a national day of observance of environmental problems, analogous to the mass demonstrations on Vietnam, is being planned for next spring, when a nationwide environmental ‘teach-in‘…coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned….”

That is when Hayes first got involved. After reading the NY Times article, he traveled to Washington to offer his support. He had been student body president and a campus activist at Stanford University in McCloskey’s district and where Teach-In board member Paul Ehrlich was a professor. He was hoping to be asked to organize the events for Boston. Instead, Nelson asked him to dropout of Harvard, assemble a staff, and lead the effort to organize the United States. Hayes would go on to become a widely recognized environmental advocate.

Hayes recruited a handful of college grads to come to Washington, DC and began to plan what would become the first April 22 Earth Day in 1970.

Nelson’s ideas were difficult to implement, as the environmental body had no central governing body. As Nelson attested, it simply grew on its own. Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. The most remarkable thing about Earth Day, an event that included more than 20 million demonstrators and thousands of schools and communities across the country, is that it organized itself.

The April 22, 1970 Earth Day marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeway and expressway revolts, the loss of wilderness, and air pollution suddenly realized they shared common values.

Media coverage of the first Earth Day included a One-Hour Primetime CBS News Special Report entitled “Earth Day: A Question of Survival.” Correspondents reported from a dozen major cities across the US, and was narrated by Walter Cronkite (whose backdrop was the Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia’s logo).

Pete Seeger was a keynote speaker and performer at the event held in Washington DC. Paul Newman and Ali McGraw attended the event held in New York City.

Earth Day 1970 across the country was perhaps no bigger than it was in New York City. During the winter of 1969-1970, a group of students met at Columbia University to hear Dennis Hayes talk about plans for Earth Day. The group agreed to head up the NYC part of the national movement. Fred Kent, one of the group members, took the lead in renting an office and recruiting volunteers.

Kristin Hubbard (now Kristin Alexandre), also one of the group’s members, said: “The big break came when Mayor Lindsay agreed to shut down 5th Avenue for the event. A giant cheer went up in the office on that day. From that time on we used Mayor Lindsay’s offices and even his staff. I was Speaker Coordinator but had tremendous help from Lindsay staffer Judith Crichton.”

In addition to shutting down Fifth Avenue, Mayor Lindsay made Central Park available for Earth Day. The crows there was estimated as more than a million — by far the largest gathering in the nation. Since New York was also the home of NBC, CBS, ABC, the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek, it provided the best possible anchor for national coverage from their reporters all over the country.

The Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce was instrumental in raising $30,000 to fund Earth Day activities and expose the city’s worst polluters. Earth Day 1970 in Philadelphia also gave birth to Earth Week, created by a committee of students (mostly from UPenn), professionals, grassroots organizations, and businessman concerned about the environment and inspired by Nelson’s call for a national environment 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. While all of their activities would build toward a climactic Earth Day celebration on April 22, there would also be an entire week of events in the week preceding.

Notable speakers who attended Earth Day at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, included keynote speaker US Senator Edmund Muskie, consumer protection activist Ralph Nader, and a host of others.

Forty years later, the Earth Week Committee created a website — — posting rare photos, video and other previously unpublished information about the history of Earth Week 1970.

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

How did Earth Day get its name?

According to Nelson, it was “an obvious and logical name” suggested by “a number of people” in the fall of 1969. Among them, was a friend of his, New York advertising executive Julian Koenig. Koenig, who had been on Nelson’s organizing committee in 1969, has said that the idea came to him by the coincidence of his birthday being on the day selected, April 22; “Earth Day” rhyming with “birthday,” the connection seemed natural. Other names circulated during the preparations — Nelson continued to call it National Environment Teach-in Day — but through press coverage of the event, Earth Day seemed to be the unanimous title, so the name stuck.

While the globally recognized Earth Day occurs on April 22 of each year, the equinoctial Earth Day is celebrated on the March equinox (around March 20) to mark the precise moment of astronomical mid-spring in the Northern Hemisphere and of astronomical mid-autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. An equinox in astronomy is that moment in time (not a whole day) when the center of the Sun can be observed to be directly “above” the Earth’s equator, occurring around March 20 and September 23 each year. In most cultures, the equinoxes and solstices are considered to start or separate the seasons.

The first equinoctial Earth Day was observed on March 21, 1970. Celebrations were held in various cities, such as San Francisco and in Davis, California with a multi-day street party. The UN’s involvement with this day (dubbed United Nations Earth Day) led to an annual ceremony beginning during the March equinox in 1972, and continuing every year since. The UN has also worked with organizers of the April 22 global event.

American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead added her support for the equinox Earth Day, and in 1978 declared: “Earth Day is the first holy day which transcends all national borders, yet preserves all geographical integrities, spans mountains and oceans and time belts, and yet brings people all over the world into one resonating accord, is devoted to the preservation of the harmony in nature and yet draws upon the triumphs of technology, the measurement of time, and instantaneous communication through space. Earth Day draws on astronomical phenomena in a new way – which is also the most ancient way – by using the vernal Equinox, the time when the Sun crosses the equator making the length of night and day equal in all parts of the Earth. To this point in the annual calendar, EARTH DAY attaches no local or divisive set of symbols, no statement of the truth or superiority of one way of life over another. But the selection of the March Equinox makes planetary observance of a shared event possible, and a flag which shows the Earth, as seen from space, appropriate.”

At the precise moment of the equinox, the UN practices traditional observance of Earth Day by ringing the Japanese Peace Bell, which was donated by Japan to the UN. Over the years, celebrations have occurred in various places worldwide at the same time as the UN celebration. On March 20, 2008, in addition to the ceremony at the United Nations, ceremonies were held in New Zealand, and bells were sounded in California, Vienna, Paris, Lithuania, Tokyo and many other locations. The equinox Earth Day at the UN is organized by the Earth Society Foundation.

Why was April 22 really chosen for Nelson’s Earth Day?

Nelson said he chose the date in order to maximize participation on college campuses for what he conceived as an “environmental teach-in.” He determined the week of April 19-25 was the best bet as it did not fall during exams or spring breaks. Moreover, it didn’t conflict with any religious holidays such as Easter or Passover, and was late enough in the spring to have decent weather. Also, more students were likely to be in class, and there would be less competition with other mid-week events — so he chose Wednesday, April 22.

Unbeknownst to Nelson, April 22, 1970, was coincidentally the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin. Time magazine reported that some were suspicious of this and that the date was not a coincidence at all, but a clue that the event was “a Communist trick,” and quoted a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution as saying: “subversive elements plan to make American children live in an environment that is good for them.”

J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI at the time, may have found the Lenin connection intriguing; it was alleged that the FBI conducted surveillance at the 1970 demonstrations. The idea that the date was chosen to celebrate Lenin’s centenary still persists in some quarters, an idea borne out by the similarity with the subbotnik instituted by Lenin in 1920 as days on which people would have to do community service, which typically consisted in removing rubbish from public property and collecting recyclable material.

Subbotniks were also imposed on other countries within the compass of Soviet power, including Eastern Europe, and at the height of its power the Soviet Union established a nation-wide subbotnik to be celebrated on Lenin’s birthday, April 22, which had been proclaimed a national holiday celebrating communism by Nikita Khrushchev in 1955.

Is there a song for Earth Day?

There are actually many songs that are performed on Earth Day. These songs generally fall into two categories. Popular songs by contemporary artists not specific to Earth Day that are under copyright, or new lyrics adapted to children’s songs. Creating new lyrics that are easily translated into multiple languages, and set to a universally recognized melody in the public domain, does not appear to have been attempted.

The “Earth Day Anthem” satisfies these requirements for a universal song associated with Earth Day. Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” melody is already the official anthem of the European Union (in that case purely instrumental without lyrics), the melody is widely recognized and easily performed, in the public domain, and originally composed for voice. Lyrics for the Earth Day Anthem set to “Ode to Joy” are:

Joyful joyful we adore our Earth in all its wonderment
Simple gifts of nature that all join into a paradise
Now we must resolve to protect her
Show her our love through out all time
With our gentle hand and touch
We make our home a newborn world

Now we must resolve to protect her

Show her our love through out all time
With our gentle hand and touch
We make our home a newborn world

Earth Day 2012

Google celebrates Earth Day 2012 with an animated logo on its homepage:

Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) group brings back Earth Day to human overpopulation as the main concern.