The first Earth Day – April 22, 1970 – marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement. Approximately 20 million Americans, especially on college campuses, participated in a national teach-in on environmental issues and protests against environmental deterioration on the first Earth Day. It’s hard to imagine it now, but the first Earth Day was a revelation to many, a way not only of raising consciousness about environmental issues but also of bringing together separate groups that had been fighting separately against issues including oil spills, pollutions from factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, the loss of wilderness, air pollution and more. Since then, Earth Day is always celebrated on April 22. But why April 22?
Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson is widely credited with suggesting the first Earth Day on April 22. It was a movement whose time had come, and Nelson wasn’t alone in 1970 in suggesting a grassroots demonstration aimed at protecting the environment. San Francisco activist John McConnell also asked Americans to join in a demonstration in 1970, and McConnell chose the spring equinox (March 21, 1970) as his date. Today, you can find Earth Day events on both the spring equinox and April 22.
April 22 continues to be the larger event, however, and the official date of Earth Day. Some say April 22 was chosen to maximize the number of students who could be reached on university campuses, and that’s undoubtedly true. But the April 22 date for the first Earth Day also stemmed from a much-earlier observance: Arbor Day, which began in Nebraska in 1872.
J. Sterling Morton was a Nebraska pioneer, a writer and editor for Nebraska’s first newspaper, and later secretary of the Nebraska Territory. He advocated planting trees in what was then a dusty and treeless prairie. At a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture in January 1872, Morton proposed that Nebraska citizens set aside April 10 as a day to plant trees. He suggested offering prizes as incentives for communities and organizations that planted the most trees. It’s said that Nebraskans planted about one million trees on that first Arbor Day in 1872. Ten years later, in 1882, Nebraska declared Arbor Day as a legal holiday and the date was changed to Morton’s birthday, April 22. Arbor Day grew to become a national observance. I can recall learning about it as a child in the 1950s and ’60s.
It seemed natural to schedule April 22, 1970 – Arbor Day – as the first Earth Day. Today, a common practice in celebration of Earth Day is still to plant new trees.
Bottom line: Why do we celebrate Earth Day on April 22? The date stems from an earlier observance, Arbor Day. And the date of Arbor Day was set due to the birthday of J. Sterling Morton, a Nebraska pioneer and journalist, who launched the first Arbor Day in 1872.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.