How has Earth Day evolved?

Crowds of people celebrate Earth Day 1970 in a park.
Lambert/­Getty Images

­The very first Earth Day, in April 1970, was a grassroots protest. It was a nationwide, coordinated effort of teach-ins, speeches and picket signs in true '60s fashion. In fact, many organizers of Earth Day 1970 had learned their craft in the antiwar movement, and they applied the lessons to a new foe: pollution and destruction of the environment.

By the late 1960s, the air, rivers and forests of North America were in serious disrepair as a result of massive industrial development. Rivers were catching fire, the sludge and debris dumped by factories igniting with the slightest spark. In a midsize city like Portland, Ore., people were breathing air that polluted their lungs at the same level as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day [source: Van Fleet]. Forests were being leveled at an alarming rate, pesticides were clogging farmland and beaches were littered with dangerous waste. By the time Ohio's Cuyahoga River combusted in 1968, the 10th time in less than a century, people were ready to move the small, grassroots "conservation" effort into the mainstream.



­That's when Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson came up with the idea for Earth Day. He'd been working for years to get his peers in Congress to join him in the fight to clean up the environment, but few were interested. He even convinced President Kennedy to do a national speaking tour about environmental issues in 1963, but it failed to garner much attention. Then, in 1969, he announced a national day of environmental protest, scheduled for April 22, 1970. The press liked it. Major media outlets started running stories about pollution that drove the issue home for the general public.

As a result, that first Earth Day was a surprisingly huge success.

In this article, we'll find out what that first Earth Day was like, and see how it has evolved. The Earth Day we know now is quite different from Earth Day 1970, although the underlying sentiment is still the same.

It's no wonder Earth Day has changed over the years. The '60s and '70s were a time that can't be replicated.


Earth Day 1970

People made major statements at the first Earth Day, protesting the state of the environment with gas masks.
Keystone/­Getty Images

­In 1970, protesting was practically a way of life in the United States. Young people and Hollywood stars, many of whom had been protesting the Vietnam War for years, took to Earth Day like fish to water. Back then, Earth Day wasn't the sedate celebration it is now. Some misguided young people actually smashed car windows for the cause, and many people walked the streets wearing gas masks.

But even those who weren't avid tree-hugging protesters showed up for that first Earth Day. Mainstream America got involved, too, after major newspapers started covering pollution-related health hazards on their front pages in preparation for the event.


At the time of Earth Day 1970, and the early years in general, it was the "conservation" movement, not the "environmental" movement. The focus was on preserving and protecting. Issues like air and water pollution, deforestation, nuclear testing and paving over parks were the big ones -- global warming wasn't yet on the docket.

Earth Day 1970 had a turnout few people expected. Around the United States and into Canada, 20 million people showed up at Earth Day rallies to draw attention to the cause and make the government take notice. It was a stunning success, especially considering the organizers' meager budget. With just $200,000, the Earth Day Network managed to set up rallies, speakers and teach-ins in places like Washington, D.C., New York City and Portland, all centered on the idea that people had to rethink their relationship with the Earth or suffer the consequences [source: Lewis].

Those early Earth Days were a measurable success, something that's pretty rare for a volunteer-driven protest. In December 1970, within seven months of the first Earth Day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was born. The Clean Air Act was broadened in 1970 and 1977, and the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. In 1980, Congress established Superfund to clean up hazardous waste sites. It was an incredible decade for environmental progress, and Earth Day 1970 played a big part in getting the ball rolling.

It's hard to replicate the excitement of the start of a movement that actually makes a difference. These days, Earth Day is less about protest and more about working toward particular goals.

It's also much, much bigger.


Current Earth Day Events

Audrey Jackson celebrates Earth Day 2008 by painting a mural at the Wilshire Center in Los Angeles.
Charley Gallay/­Getty Images


­Things have changed since the 1970s. Communication is increasingly electronic. War is protested online. Petitions are e-signed. "Environmental action" entails throwing a newspaper in a recycling bin instead of in the trash. Earth Day is no different: You won't find many street riots at this year's Earth Day, thankfully. But you also won't find the electric atmosphere of 1970.


In the 21st century, "conservation" has become "the environment," and world governments are well aware of the issues at hand. Instead of focusing on protecting parks and eliminating pesticides in our food, the greater focus is on saving the future of the planet by curbing global warming, which could wipe out life as we know it.

Earth Day is a huge event. Major cities all over the world -- not just those in the United States and Canada -- host rallies, speeches, volunteer efforts like planting trees and cleaning up parks, and demonstrations at museums for everyone to take part in. Earth Day isn't just a day; it's a whole week, just in case people can't get out of work on April 22. What started in 1970 with an amazing 20 million people swelled to 200 million in 1990 and up to 500 million post-2000. The budget has expanded along with the number of attendees, now measuring well into the millions of dollars.

And along with big budgets comes big business. Saving the environment has become a consumer craze, and at a 21st century Earth Day, you'll find all sorts of "green" products available for purchase and free trial. Care for a snack? Try the chocolate bar that comes in recyclable packaging. Or maybe pick up a package of sustainable wood-fiber-filled baby diapers, or a no-animal-testing sunscreen, nontoxic spray cleaner, an entry form for a Prius giveaway or a cloth grocery bag for your shopping.

­The feeling of Earth Day may have changed in the last 40 years, but the motivation is still the same: To get legislators and civilians alike to take action against environmental destruction. This year, when you attend an Earth Day celebration in your area, just remember to bring your grocery tote -- there probably won't be many plastic bags available for carrying your stuff.



Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Binder, Libuse. "The Earth Day Evolution." Earth911. March 15, 2008.
  • Lewis, Jack. "The Spirit of the First Earth Day." EPA. January/February 1990.
  • Van Fleet, Toby. "The Evolution of Earth Day." Portland Tribune. April 15, 2008.