The first Earth Day – April 22, 1970 – is sometimes said to have marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement. It predates the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, now led by Scott Pruitt. 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. At the first Earth Day in 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans – mostly white, mostly young – took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy environment and to participate in teach-ins.
Since then, Earth Day has always been celebrated on April 22.
Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson is widely credited with suggesting the first Earth Day on April 22. The date was selected in part with college campuses in mind; April 22 fell between spring break and final exams.
The date of the first Earth Day also stemmed from a much-earlier observance: Arbor Day, which began in Nebraska in 1872. The most common practice on Arbor Day was the planting of trees. 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.
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.
Kathleen Rogers is a former environmental attorney who has led the Earth Day Network since 2001. She’s a frequent commentator on environmental issues in the media (CNN, Fox News, NPR, Time, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times). She wrote in 2018:
Earth Day is now a global event each year, and we believe that more than 1 billion people in 192 countries now take part in what is the largest civic-focused day of action in the world.
It is a day of political action and civic participation. People march, sign petitions, meet with their elected officials, plant trees, clean up their towns and roads. Corporations and governments use it to make pledges and announce sustainability measures. Faith leaders, including Pope Francis, connect Earth Day with protecting God’s greatest creations, humans, biodiversity and the planet that we all live on.
Rogers said the Earth Day Network will focus on a multi-year campaign to End Plastic Pollution. Goals include ending single-use plastics, promoting alternatives to fossil fuel-based materials, promoting 100 percent recycling of plastics, corporate and government accountability and changing human behavior concerning plastics. The project includes four major components:
– Leading a grassroots movement to support the adoption of a global framework to regulate plastic pollution;
– Educating, mobilizing and activating citizens across the globe to demand that governments and corporations control and clean up plastic pollution;
– Educating people worldwide to take personal responsibility for plastic pollution by choosing to reject, reduce, reuse and recycle plastics, and
– Promoting local government regulatory and other efforts to tackle plastic pollution.
Bottom line: Why do we celebrate Earth Day on April 22? The date stems from an earlier observance, Arbor Day. 2018’s Earth Day is focused on plastic pollution.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded 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.