Earth Day Then and Now

Earth Day Then And Now

This Thursday, April 22nd, 2021 is the 51st Earth Day. The Covid-19 Pandemic has not put a stop to Earth Day, and as the world’s largest secular occasion, there will be demonstrations and conferences globally and both physical and virtual events. Considering the importance of this day and that the first Earth Day is regarded by many as the beginning of the modern environmental movement, let us learn about how the first Earth Day happened, the environmental movement since then, and what the environmental movement’s agenda should be today.


The First Earth Day

After World War II, the United States emerged as an economic powerhouse. Rivalled only by its ideological nemesis the USSR, the United States boasted the world’s largest economy by a large margin. American industry flourished, such as with the automotive industry in Detroit. Thanks to conducive government legislation such as the GI Bill, many homecoming veterans were able to build prosperous lives in newly created suburbs. All seemed to be well.

Figure 1: A Post World-War II American Suburb – Thousands of Tract Homes Like These Were Constructed Across the Nation


However, this prosperity came at the cost of environmental degradation. The millions of new cars Americans used functioned with leaded gasoline and polluted mercilessly, which, along with coal-fired power plants and other pollution sources, degraded American air. Chemical plants dumped industrial waste into local waterways with impunity. In places such as Love Canal, New York, the very soil became contaminated.

Figure 2: NYC Skyline in 1973, Before Environmental Regulations Were Put In Place


This environmental degradation hurt Americans’ public health and also hindered recreation. Wildlife were negatively affected as well, perhaps most famously the bald eagle, whose population dropped precipitously due to the use of DDT, a pesticide. This pesticide entered the natural environment and magnified as it went up the food chain, and bald eagles were consuming such large amounts of DDT that it was causing them to lay very fragile eggs that were vulnerable to breakage.


In the 1960s, the American public became more aware of the environmental damage around them, such as with Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring, the book that revealed DDT’s harm. Another event that showed Americans how their society was hurting the environment was a large oil spill off Santa Barbara, California in 1969. One American who was greatly affected by this was Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin. The senator, who already was concerned about the environment, was thoroughly shaken by the oil slick he could see even from a plane above.

Figure 3: Map of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, 1969

Figure 4: Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson


Nelson, deciding that government action was necessary to protect the environment, decided to call for a national environmental “teach-in”, where Americans across the country would organize to clean the environment and advocate for change. Nelson wanted to bring the fervour of the contemporaneous Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements to the Environmental Movement.


Nelson worked with Republican Representative Pete McCloskey from California to organize the teach-in, and they hired young Denis Hayes, a law student with prior activism experience, to organize the students. The group decided to hold the teach-in on April 22nd, as that was in-between Spring break and final exams and so would maximize student involvement. Everything was set, but unfortunately the name was quite dry; a new name was necessary to attract more media coverage. After long brainstorming, the group finally decided on a name: Earth Day.

Figure 5: Denis Hayes, Organizer for the First “Earth Day”


On April 22nd, as planned there were gatherings across the nation, from the nation’s largest cities to more rural areas as well. Americans of all ages and backgrounds protested for the environment and worked to clean up local grounds. Approximately 20 million people participated, which was then 10% of the American population. Overall, the first Earth Day was one of the largest protests in history and a success. Key moments from the first Earth Day included Senator Nelson’s speech, which called for the election of an “ecology congress” that prioritized remedying the environment and taking care of society instead of escalating the nuclear arms race.

Figure 6: Protesters in Denver, Colorado on the First Earth Day


Figure 7: Senator Nelson Speaking on the First Earth Day


Earth Day 51 Years Hence

Since 1970, Earth Day has continued to grow. In 1990, Hayes and colleagues helped to make Earth Day an international observance. The advent of the Internet and increasing global connectivity have allowed Earth Day to grow significantly, and function even through the social distancing of the Covid-19 Pandemic. This increasing global participation is and will be necessary to combat climate change and add urgency to solving environmental issues.


However, the Environmental Movement still has room to grow. The renowned news anchor Walter Cronkite noted back in 1970, during the first Earth Day, that the Earth Day organizers had failed in many respects. While thousands did participate, public participation was still less than desired, with many Americans abstaining from Earth Day events. Overall, most participants were white, higher-income, and Democratic-leaning, and so the first Earth Day, to many, seemed to be partisan and out-of-touch.

Figure 8: CBS Anchor Walter Cronkite Covering the First Earth Day


Today, there undoubtedly are many minority individuals who are involved with the Environmental Movement. In fact, a Yale University study suggests that Hispanic and African-American individuals prioritize environmental protection more than White individuals, with 60% of Hispanics and African-Americans categorizing the issue as “very important” in contrast with only 44% of White Americans. However, one study by Adam Pearson of Pomona College and other researchers shows that Americans underestimate the importance minority individuals place on the environment, thus showing how the Environmental Movement still appears to many as White and middle-class. Regarding political polarization, views on the environment have lamentably actually diverged even further based on party affiliation, with a Pew Research study showing that while 89% of highly educated Democratic voters in a sample believed that human activity contributed to climate change, only 17% of highly educated Republican voters in the sample believed so.

Figure 9: Climate Demonstrators


As Earth Day reaches its 51st anniversary, it is clear that it has achieved many successes and has grown considerably in its participation. However, many challenges remain, and in the coming years the Environmental Movement must work to involve minority individuals and overcome political polarization to truly become a universal front for change.



  1. – The History of Earth Day
  2. How Americans see climate change and the environment in 7 charts
  3. Which racial/ethnic groups care most about climate change?
  4. Diverse segments of the US public underestimate the environmental concerns of minority and low-income Americans
  5. Earth Day 1970 Part 1: Intro (CBS News with Walter Cronkite)
  6. Earth Day 1970 Part 2: Gaylord Nelson’s Speech (CBS News with Walter Cronkite)
  7. Earth Day 1970 Part 3: Washington D.C. (CBS News with Walter Cronkite)
  8. Earth Day 1970 Part 4: Albion, Michigan (CBS News with Walter Cronkite)
  9. Earth Day 1970 Part 5: Council Bluffs, Iowa (CBS News with Walter Cronkite)
  10. Earth Day 1970 Part 6: Boston, NYC, Chicago, LA (CBS News with Walter Cronkite)
  11. Earth Day 1970 Part 7: G.E. and Minneapolis (CBS News with Walter Cronkite)
  12. Earth Day 1970 Part 8: Albuquerque (CBS News with Walter Cronkite)
  13. Earth Day 1970 Part 11: White House Reaction (CBS News with Walter Cronkite)
  14. Earth Day 1970 Part 13: Conclusion (CBS News with Walter Cronkite)