Earth Day History And Why It Matters

What Is Earth Day?

Earth Day is a coordinated global movement observed annually on April 22nd in more than 190 nations. Its beginnings in the United States in 1970 helped drive change and spark the creation of government agencies and new laws focused on support for protection of the environment.

The founder of Earth Day, environmentalist and Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed an environmental 'teach-in' at universities across the nation, hiring activist Denis Hayes to coordinate the event. Hayes realized that students were more preoccupied with concerns over Vietnam and civil rights issues, so he and his staff took it to the communities instead, encouraging citizens to protest environmental issues that were important to them in their own cities and neighborhoods.

Word of the plan quickly spread across the entire United States, and on April 22, 1970 over 20 million people held rallies on what is considered to be the largest protest in history.

International Earth Day banner.

In 1990, on the 20th anniversary of efforts in the United States, the movement was expanded globally when over 200 million people in 141 countries coordinated events to mark the day. The Paris Climate Accord, which focuses on climate change, was negotiated by 196 parties in 2015 and put forth for signing on Earth Day in 2016 at a ceremony in New York.

Today, more than one billion people observe Earth Day as one of the largest non-spiritual days of action in the world. But the movement to protect nature was not always in the public forefront, until a fateful day in 1969 that opened the eyes of the public across America.

The Disaster That Tipped The Scale

On January 28, 1969 a Union Oil platform located six miles off the coast of southern California near Santa Barbara experienced a blowout, leaking over three million gallons of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel.

An offshore oil platform in the ocean.

Countless sea birds, dolphins, seals, and sea lions died, along with miles of blackened beaches covered in crude. Although the major leakage was stopped within a few weeks, continued spilling occurred from rips in the ocean floor for months afterwards and oil was still detected in the water into 1970 as far south as Mexico.

Ocean water and coastline covered in black oil with cleanup equipment.

The disaster sparked outrage among citizens and politicians alike. Environmental concern had already begun in the early 1960's, after marine biologist and prominent author Rachel Carson released her book Silent Spring in 1962, raising public awareness about harm to the environment caused by pesticides and the lack of transparency by chemical manufacturers.

Her book changed public opinion about pesticides and pollution, leading to the famous campaign to ban chemicals such as DDT in agriculture. Other issues like industrial pollution and the burning of leaded gasoline in millions of automobiles were also at the forefront of public consciousness.

But the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill was the most visible emergency of the times, especially to locals who were faced with the terrible smell of crude oil, blackened beaches, thousands of dead and dying birds and extensive property damage.

Dead seabird on beach covered in crude oil.

The alarm bells sounded as major newspapers, radio and television stations across America reported the catastrophe, while President Richard Nixon travelled to California to see the damage for himself. After telling locals that he would consider a ban on oil drilling in the channel, residents were infuriated when less than two weeks later, drilling resumed and still continues to this day.

The environmental impact and economic fallout from the largest oil spill in U.S. waters at the time motivated Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin, along with Denis Hayes and U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey of California to establish Earth Day, in an effort to educate and bring forth public awareness on environmental issues.

The Birth Of A Movement

On January 28, 1970, the one year anniversary of the oil spill, 'Environmental Rights Day' was observed in Santa Barbara. The Declaration of Environmental Rights, written by Rod Nash, was read at a conference spearheaded by environmental leader, lawyer and educator Marc McGinnes, and was attended by Congressman Pete McCloskey, Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, Senator Alan Cranston, biologist Paul Ehrlich, environmentalist David Brower, and other prominent leaders.

Denis Hayes was quoted as saying that 'this was the first giant crowd he spoke to that "felt passionately, I mean really passionately, about environmental issues." Hayes also thought the conference might be the beginning of a real movement.' [1]

The spire of the Capital Building in Washington USA shows above the trees of a nearby park.

Never in United States history did new environmental and public safety legislation emerge so quickly than in the few short years after the Santa Barbara Oil Spill. Some of the new agencies and legislation that were passed include:

• The Environmental Protection Agency (December 1970)

• The National Environmental Policy Act (January 1970)

• The California Environmental Quality Act (1970)

• The Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970)

• The Clean Air Act (1963, amended in 1970)

• The Clean Water Act (rewritten in 1972)

Although the damaging oil spill was not the only event which spurred the government to pass new protections and laws, it is widely considered one of the catalysts that led to the modern environmental movement around the world as it exists today.

Inspired by the commitment and passion of those who lobbied for change at the turn of the decade, Senator Gaylord Nelson and Denis Hayes broke new ground with the idea of a day that would honour the earth, and on April 22, 1970, Earth Day was born in the United States.

Pollution Is The Problem

The pollution of our planet is the crucial problem that is almost always associated with human activity. We are all responsible for it, and it comes in a variety of forms that can be classified into three main groups.

Air pollution "is the contamination of air due to the presence of substances in the atmosphere that are harmful to the health of humans and other living beings, or cause damage to the climate or to materials." [2]

Water pollution is almost entirely caused by humans, and is "the release of substances into subsurface groundwater or into lakes, streams, rivers, estuaries, and oceans to the point where the substances interfere with beneficial use of the water or with the natural functioning of ecosystems." [3]

Land pollution is "the deposition of solid or liquid waste materials on land or underground in a manner that can contaminate the soil and groundwater, threaten public health, and cause unsightly conditions and nuisances." [4]

Infographic illustrating the effects of air, water, and land pollution on the human body.

Just as all types of pollution harm the planet and ecosystems, human health is greatly affected by the degradation of our environment. "About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution" [5], which has resulted in a rapid increase in the occurrence of chronic diseases.

Public education is key to understanding how humans are negatively affecting our planet, which will help to inspire action and innovation. This is what Earth Day is all about at its core; "empowering individuals with the information, the tools, the messaging and the communities needed to make an impact and drive change." [6]


Today, EARTHDAY.ORG is the leading authority and largest environmental movement in the world with a goal to educate and bring people together around the globe with tools they can use for effective change towards a sustainable future.

Incredibly, Denis Hayes, the original National Coordinator for the very first Earth Day in 1970 when he was only 25 years old, is still a board member today. That alone speaks to his passion and the commitment of every member involved in the organization since its inception.

Their mission statement reads:

"EARTHDAY.ORG’s mission is to diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide. Growing out of the first Earth Day in 1970, EARTHDAY.ORG is the world’s largest recruiter to the environmental movement, working with more than 150,000 partners in over 192 countries to drive positive action for our planet." [7]

The EARTHDAY.ORG website is a powerful resource that everyone can use to learn how you can contribute in your own community, no matter where you reside, to help protect the planet.

For Americans, a variety of petitions are available that you can read and sign, then with the click of a button, EARTHDAY.ORG will hand it in to government leaders on your behalf.

A polar bear and cub, a tiger and cubs, a wolf and pup, and a bee pollinating a flower.
Human activity and climate change are the root causes of species extinction, which is now occurring at a rate 10,000 times faster than the natural historical rate.

A variety of fact sheets are also available on topics such as plastic pollution, reforestation, global species decline, food systems and climate change, agriculture and the importance of bees. The sobering statistics illustrate how human activity is causing irreversible damage to the planet at an alarming rate which can no longer be ignored.

EARTHDAY.ORG is the "the global organizer of Earth Day", and reinforces the fact that we as individuals hold considerable influence to drive positive change as consumers and voters. It cannot be overstated that when we unite as citizens, we hold real power to drive innovation in fighting climate change while electing and holding our leaders responsible for their actions.

The EARTHDAY.ORG website holds a wealth of information, initiatives and education that guide how we can all contribute to a achieve a zero carbon future while protecting the health of humankind.

How You Can Help

The unfortunate truth is that most people are not motivated to address climate change and pollution because it has never been an obvious danger. Although we are highly motivated to avoid immediate, obvious threats such as jumping out of the way of a moving car, humans are not as proficient at recognizing long term problems that have no obvious and immediate risks.

We tend to 'live in the now' and focus on short term benefits and pleasures, like driving gas guzzling vehicles, eating too much unhealthy food and living in large houses that consume a lot of energy.

So even though climate change is also a serious threat, it is difficult to change lifestyle habits now which have long term benefits in the future that we cannot immediately see. This is the challenge that we face, which is why we must stop and evaluate the consequences of the choices we make today that will negatively affect the lives of our grandchildren and future generations.

Starting now, it will make a significant impact on the health of our planet by adjusting our habits and making small changes that are easy to do. And that is key- changes need to be easy and understandable so that more people will be inspired to do their part and take action.

Below are three simple, low cost actions that we can incorporate immediately into our lifestyles.


Since the 1950's, "virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated). [8] "None of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable. As a result, they accumulate, rather than decompose, in landfills or the natural environment." [9]

"The billions upon billions of items of plastic waste choking our oceans, lakes, and rivers and piling up on land" [10] are a serious threat to plant life, wildlife, and humans.

Reusable water bottle next to a plastic water bottle.
Americans alone purchase 50 billion plastic water bottles every year, and 91% of all plastics are not recycled. Switching to a reusable water bottle is a simple way to dramatically reduce plastic waste.

If the pollution of plastics alone is not enough to deter you, consider the health risks. A chemical called Bisphenol A (BPA) is commonly used in the production of single use plastics like beverage containers, dinnerware, the linings of food cans, children's toys and a host of other products. BPA is considered an endocrine disruptor in humans which can cause adverse health effects, the extent of which is not fully understood.

"A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey produced by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that BPA was found in 93% of urine samples taken from people above the age of six." [11]

At the end of the day, plastics are very bad for all species and the environment. It is easy to buy a reusable drinking container and stop purchasing plastic water bottles.


Think that paper coffee cup from your morning drive-thru is biodegradable? Sorry, they are not.

The International Coffee Organization states that approximately 600 BILLION cups of coffee are consumed every year around the world. The majority of disposable paper cups are made with a polyethylene (plastic) lining, which contaminates the paper and renders them non-recyclable, along with the plastic lids.

A line of reusable coffee cups, and a paper coffee cup discarded as litter on a nature trail.
Single use cups are coated with a layer of plastic, and are not recyclable. Choose reusable cups instead.

"It’s estimated that 50 billion paper coffee cups are being thrown away in the USA every year" [12], while "Starbucks alone is responsible for roughly 7 billion cups a year." [13]

"99.75% of paper coffee cups" [14] end up in landfills or as litter, where the polyethylene linings degrade. These microplastics leach into the soil and groundwater over time, entering our ecosystems and ultimately become ingested by animals, fish, and humans. Again, plastics are just plain bad.

Most major coffee chains welcome the use of reusable cups, and some even give incentives and discounts for bringing your own. Most people already own reusable mugs, so this is a simple tweak of your daily habit to start using it all the time.


Did you know that FIVE TRILLION plastic bags are manufactured every year? Although most plastics bags are technically recyclable, the problem is the process itself. Thin plastic bags get caught up in machinery at recycling facilities, making the process slow and difficult. As a result, many facilities will not accept plastic bags anymore, so your local community no longer allows them in your recycling bin either.

The result is they end up in the landfill, the ocean or as litter on land. Plastic bags can take 1,000 years to decompose naturally, releasing toxins as they decay and crumble which poisons the environment.

Reusable grocery bags compared to plastic bags.
Americans throw away an astounding 100 billion plastic bags per year. Using reusable shopping bags would eliminate the waste.

Reusable bags can be purchased from grocery stores, dollar stores and countless other retailers in multiple sizes, colours and materials. The smaller cotton mesh drawstring bags are great for produce, so your cashier can still easily identify products and weigh them at the checkout counter.

Then all of your groceries can be piled into your larger strap-handled fabric bags for the trip home. It is a good idea to throw your reusable bags into the laundry periodically to prevent bacteria growth in case you had some leakage.

Keep them hanging on a hook by your door, or in the trunk of your car so they are always ready to use when you go shopping. If everyone did this, plastic grocery bag waste could be eliminated.

More Things We Can Do


One of the easiest ways you can help the planet is to join a local clean-up in your community. The EARTHDAY.ORG website includes a map to find events near you, or better yet, you can easily create your own and post it to their site here so others can join you.

Volunteers clean up trash in a public park.

The great thing is there are some serious 'feel-good' vibes that will result from participating in or hosting these small events. You are helping to clean up and protect your community, wildlife, and the planet, which gives you some well deserved bragging rights.

Another easy practice is to stuff a garbage bag in your pocket when you go for a stroll or walk your dog. Pick up a few pieces of litter while you are out and toss it in the garbage. Every little bit helps and it always feels rewarding.

5. PLANT A TREE. (Or better yet, many of them!)

Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis, and release the oxygen that we breathe. Forests are vital for humanity and most terrestrial species, providing shelter, food, medicine, health benefits, jobs, and so much more.

The loss of forests, which is occurring at alarming rates around the world, stifles the planet's ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Therefore more of it is trapped in the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.

A group of volunteers plant trees in a park.
Trees are the living, breathing pillars of our planet that absorb carbon dioxide and produce the oxygen that we breathe.

"The Canopy Project improves our shared environment by planting trees across the globe. Since 2010, EARTHDAY.ORG has planted tens of millions of trees with The Canopy Project, working worldwide to strengthen communities." [15]

If you are a homeowner, consider planting trees on your property or check with your local community to see if there are planting projects. Some municipalities will even provide trees in certain circumstances.

You can also consider donating to the Canopy Project which will plants trees for as little as one dollar per tree in communities and forests around the world that need them most.

Hope And Optimism

Let us pause for a moment and be realistic. Climate change has been sneaking up on us for a long time and it has become obvious that it is a real threat to our future.

"A consensus on climate change and its human cause exists. Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that human activities are the primary cause of the observed climate-warming trend over the past century." [16]

A row of wind turbines in a field, a field of solar panels in the countryside, an electric vehicle charging in the driveway of a home, and a row of houses with solar panels on their roofs.
Embracing sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar power, and the crossover to electric vehicles are crucial to help reduce fossil fuel pollution.

Scientists are working hard on solutions and there have been major and recent breakthroughs in addressing global warming with real actions that can be implemented quickly when we unite.

"Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley have released a new scientific study that produced 100% renewable energy roadmaps for 139 individual countries, representing more than 99% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The study’s 27 co-authors show how available solar, wind, and water resources can be rapidly scaled to create a global energy system that relies entirely on clean, renewable energy for all purposes." [17]

An important footnote to this new study and proposed transition is that 24 million new, more permanent full time jobs would be created, and that includes the replacement of all jobs lost in the fossil fuel industry.

An older person's hands holding a small artificial earth globe handing them to a child's hands to illustrate passing on a healthy earth to future generations.
It is important to do our part in reducing pollution so we can pass on a healthier planet for future generations.

We simply do not have all of the answers TODAY, but sustainable energy solutions do exist that have already been implemented and proven to be impactful. Also, there are new habits that we can all embrace that collectively, will have a substantial impact on reducing our carbon footprints and reducing pollution.

Remember that we all have the power as consumers to make these small changes today in our own lifestyles that will have lasting significance in the health of the planet, and the quality of life for future generations.

We only have one earth. Make every day EARTH DAY, and spread the word.


1. Kate Wheeling; Max Ufberg. "'Ocean Is Boiling': The Complete Oral History of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill." Pacific Standard, Grist. April 18, 2017.

2. Wikipedia. "Air Pollution." Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

3. Jerry A. Nathanson. "Water Pollution." Britannica.

4. Jerry A. Nathanson. "Land Pollution." Britannica.

5. Susan S Lang. "Water, air and soil pollution causes 40 percent of deaths worldwide, Cornell research survey finds." Cornell Chronicle. August 2, 2007.

6. EARTHDAY.ORG. "The History of Earth Day." EARTHDAY.ORG.


8. Roland Geyer; Jenna R. Jambeck; Kara Lavender Law. "Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made." Science Advances. July 19, 2017

9. EARTHDAY.ORG. "Fact Sheet: Single Use Plastics." EARTHDAY.ORG.

10. EARTHDAY.ORG. "Fact Sheet: The Plastic Threat To Human Health." EARTHDAY.ORG.

11. Waste Advantage Magazine. "New Infographic Reveals the Waste Mountain of Coffee Cups We Produce Per Year." Waste Advantage Magazine. November 9, 2016.

12. Good Start Packaging. "Paper Coffee Cups." Good Start Packaging.

13. Reality Check team; BBC News. "Plastic recycling: Why are 99.75% of coffee cups not recycled?" BBC. April 17, 2018.

14. EARTHDAY.ORG. "Plant A Forest With The Canopy Project". EARTHDAY.ORG.

15. NASA. "Scientific Consensus: Earth's Climate Is Warming." Earth Science Communications Team, NASA.

16. Mark Z. Jacobson. "The benefits of 139 countries switching to 100% renewable energy by 2050." One Earth. October 25, 2021.