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Earth Day's Roots

By Jacqueline Metzger-Taylor

Every year Earth Day is observed across the country, as a day for all of us to reflect and appreciate life on Planet Earth. However, climate issues continue to grow more and more important every day, and caring about our environment has become less of an option and more of a necessity for our survival. Earth Day didn’t come out of thin air. The history of human beings caring and learning more about environmental health ties directly into its formation.

Despite the first Earth Day being celebrated in 1970, its story began in 1962, when Rachel Carson published her hit book Silent Spring. Silent Spring, often referred to as the beginning of the modern American environmental movement, forced the USA to rethink human impacts on our environment. Before Silent Spring, air pollution and consistent litter were thought of as eyesores, but also as signs of America's booming and successful factories and industries. Silent Spring forced people to think more carefully about their actions, and how they were harming themselves along with the health of others. It sold more than 500,000 copies and raised public awareness and concern for the environment, pollution, and safety of all living things.

In 1967, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsinite junior senator, witnessed the impact of a catastrophic oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Nelson, who had long considered himself an environmentalist, decided to introduce growing public concerns about air and water pollution into ongoing anti-war student protests. In this way, serious environmentalism, which had thus far been a grassroots issue, would then be legitimized and brought to the forefront of American activism.

Nelson initially intended for "Earth Day" to simply be a series of teach-ins at colleges across the country on April 22, which would fall between Spring Break and Final Exams, maximizing student participation. He recruited a student activist named Dennis Hayes to assist him in organizing these teach-ins and spreading the word. However, Hayes quickly realized that Earth Day had the power to positively impact the entire country, not just on campus. He built a national staff to promote the events, including churches, environmentalist groups, and schools. Finally, to draw media attention, they deemed this day of learning 'Earth Day,' launching the events into the national forefront. When April 22, 1970 finally arrived after much preparation, nearly 10% of the US population went outside to protest about the planet's deterioration, and bond over the shared, bipartisan need to protect our planet.

The first Earth Day was such a success that by the end of 1970 new programs and laws were enacted to maintain the momentum it created, such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency, National Environmental Education Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act. With every passing decade, Earth Day grew to include more countries and more issues, such as environmental racism, and global warming. For Senator Nelson, his efforts as the founder of Earth Day were recognized 22 years later when President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to civilians in the United States.

Today, Earth Day has grown tremendously and is celebrated in about 193 countries. Earth Day continues to serve the purpose of reminding the public of the necessity of addressing environmental issues and the need for a focus on healing the earth as fast as we can. In a time when climate change denialism is at an all-time high, it is once again up to the youth of the world to continuously make sure that our lawmakers aren't allowed to ignore preventable problems with our environment. Earth Day began as a way to incentivize the young people of Earth to encourage their elders to care about their futures. Today, the first generation to experience Earth Day matured into the new elders, and have passed the torch down to us to save the Earth.

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