The history of Earth Day

14 April 2020

Australians are very familiar with Earth Hour and our school curriculums promote World Environment Day. But we are less familiar with Earth Day, which began in the Unites States in 1970. With so many ‘days’ filling our calendars, from Penguin Awareness Day (20 January) to Bicarbonate of Soda Day (31 December), it is easy to let another ‘day’ like Earth Day slip by. However, 22 April 2020 is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. In fact, to mark the occasion, National Geographic magazine has devoted an entire issue to Earth Day. So what makes Earth Day so influential?

The Earth Day Network nominates five dates as key moments in the development of the organisation.


In 1970, a US Democratic Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, came up with the idea for a national day to focus on the environment after Nelson after witnessing the impacts of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969. Inspired by student anti-Vietnam war movement, Senator Nelson hoped to harness the same energy from an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, to force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Gaining bipartisan support by recruiting Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, to get on board with the idea, Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment. On 22 April 1970, 20 million Americans at the time, 10% of the total population of the United States, took to the streets to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Groups that had been lobbying for individual issues came together under the banner of Earth Day. By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean AirClean Water and Endangered Species Acts.


In 1990, Earth Day went global, mobilising 200 million people in 141 countries elevating environmental issues onto the world stage. Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.


In 2000, Earth Day used the emerging power of the internet to focus attention on global warming and a push for clean energy. Some 5,000 environmental groups in 184 countries reached hundreds of millions of people to engage in global and local conversations.


Earth Day 2010 was a challenging time for the organisation in the face of the cynicism of climate change deniers, well-funded oil lobbyists, reticent politicians, a disinterested public, and a divided environmental community. However, Earth Day Network, the group that drives Earth Day, reestablished it as a major moment for global action for the environment. Earth Day 2010 brought 250,000 people to the Washington National Mall for a climate rally and introduced a global tree planting initiative that has since grown into The Canopy Project. Earth Day Network also launched A Billion Acts of Green® — the world’s largest environmental service project.


Earth Day 2020 will mark 50 years with global activations that aim to mobilise a billion people worldwide for transformative action for our planet

From then to now

Amy Cassara, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C., analyses global environmental trends notes that, since Earth Day started, environmentalism has moved from a fringe issue to a mainstream concern. “Earth Day doesn't raise awareness among the general public in the same way that it used to. But it still provides a benchmark for reflection among those of us in the environmental community,” she said.

To mark the 50th anniversary and the influence of Earth Day, National Geographic has created the first ever “flip” issue of the magazine to revisit environmental milestones of the past 50 years and to look ahead 50 years to Earth Day’s 100th anniversary in 2070.

So on 22 April, take some time to stop and reflect on the environmental achievements, and losses, of the last 50 years. Then project forward another 50. Where will we be and what can you do to contribute positively to that future?