Earth Day has been celebrated every year on April 22nd since its inception in 1970. In 1968, the U.S. Public Health Service organized the Human Ecology Symposium, an environmental conference for students to learn about the degradation of the Earth’s resources and its impacts on human health. Its organizer, Morton Hilbert, spent the next 2 years with his students organizing the first Earth Day. Hilbert went on to make waves in other arenas, specifically his efforts in relocating Vietnamese refugees in the early 1950s, but he will be best known for his collaboration with Senator Gaylord Nelson who was integral to the establishment of Earth Day. After touring the oil spill ravaged area of Santa Barbara in the 1960s, Nelson, aboard a flight to San Francisco posited that:
“If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda.”
And this is what he did in partnership with Hilbert and several committed students. The vision for Earth Day was for people to act locally, for the day to be decentralized and for it to be as entirely grassroots as possible. Today it is celebrated in 192 countries. There have been pivotal points along the way that have led to the day’s success, most notably in 1990 when the mobilization of 200 million people spearheaded recycling efforts and laid the ground work for the Earth Summit in 1992, orchestrated by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. There were 172 nations represented, with 166 sending their heads of state or government. The conference produced the nonbinding resolution, Agenda 21, containing guidelines on sustainability, such as the Forest Principles which extends to the conservation of forested lands; and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, with principles for local engagement in sound economic growth. Earth Day 2000 included a virtual world which increased its reach across the globe.
Many people credit the roots of Earth Day to a few years before the influential symposium coordinated by Hilbert; as some say it started with the release of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, in 1962. In the 1940s, Carson became concerned with synthetic pesticides, specifically DDT, a compound used to fight fire ants and mosquitos. Its use caused the unintentional death of thousands of birds, and it led Carson to dig deeper. Working alongside the Audubon Society, she spent four years compiling data about the collateral damage of pesticide use on all living things. She began writing her monograph feverishly in 1960, culminating in 1962; when published, the book was an international eye-opener. Her choice of title was inspired by a Keats poem with the lines, “The sedge is wither’d from the lake, and no birds sing.”
So what has Earth Day done for us? Many have criticized it, saying that it is only a show and that its impact is not far-reaching. Those same critics say that people think one day of doing well is enough, and they most often return to their old (bad) habits. But as more people do come to participate, and as the global climate shifts (both literally and figuratively), it may be the impetus for further real change. While it has been around for three and a half decades, its growth shows there is more work to be done, and more people to sway to make every day an Earth Day.