The Origin and Impact of Earth Day

As Earth Day's 50th Anniversary approaches, it pays to look back on the start of this important holiday, and understand how it came to be. In the 1950s, before Earth Day was even being considered as a concept, no one gave much thought for the environment. The chemical industry was at its peak, and there was little in the way of protection for the environment. When most people thought of environmentalism, they didn't think about protecting the oceans from things like plastic and oil spills, instead they thought of things like setting aside land for animals and protecting old growth forests. 


In the 1960s, this all began to change. The first major ripple to hit the status quo was Rachel Carson's book, “Silent Spring.” The book brought to the attention of the average man or woman the damage being done to the environment by the chemical industry. It was a very popular book at the time, and it changed the minds of many people about how they viewed the environment.

Silent Spring got people thinking about the environment, and a series of environmental disasters helped launch people into action. Among them were major oil spills off of the California cost, and pollution so bad in the great lakes, a river leading to Lake Eyrie actually caught on fire. 

Source:  Sierra Club

Source: Sierra Club

These disasters coupled with many others galvanized environmentalists into action. Determined to make an impact, they began to plan a grass roots movement to help take a stand for the good of the planet. That grass roots movement was a concept called Earth Day, and it launched April 22nd, 1970. Over 20 million people left their homes to attend events around the United States in an overwhelming show of support for this movement. Their efforts had a profound impact. The government hastened to create legislation to protect against some of the worst atrocities that big business was having on the environment. 

The same year as Earth Day had its first event, the United States came out with the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. These two bits of legislation changed the world for the better. Instead of being allowed to spew what ever dangerous chemicals they wanted into the air or dumped into streams, factories now had to meet specific standards.

Years before Earth day started, twenty people in a small town called Donora died from air pollution expelled by a factory. According to the EPA, the Clean Air Act is credited with preventing as many as 160,000 premature deaths, 130,000 heart attacks, and as many as 83,000 hospitalizations. The clean water act as had an equally large impact. When the Clean Water Act first went into effect, only 1/3 of the United State's water was safe to be used. This climbed to over 2/3rds.


These successes alone both had a strong impact on improving the environment, and with the installation of a new agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, also a direct reaction to Earth Day, the environment suddenly had a fighting chance for good.

Earth Day then took a back seat on the world's stage until 1990, when environmentalists again rallied to the cause. This time not 20 million, but 200 million people. This time their goal wasn't to stop the flow of toxins being let loose into the air and water, but to make Earth Day a global event. Their focus this time was on recycling.

Once again the efforts of environmentalists around the globe were impactful. Their events gained global attention to the impact throwing out aluminum cans and other highly recyclable items had on the world. The average person learned that when they threw something away, they needed to realize that there is no “away”. There is just our one planet.

The 1990 Earth Day celebrations were mainly created by two foundations developed specifically for the vent. The Earth Day 20 Foundation, and Earth Day 1990. These foundations were lead by many of the same people who had been essential in the first Earth Day. These people included Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was the original founder of the 1970 Earth Day, Edward Furia who was the Project Director for Earth Week, 1970 and Denis Hayes, National Coordinator for Earth Day 1970.

Their efforts spread Earth Day from just the United States to 161 countries. A team of climbers on Mount Everest brought down two tons of garbage left by other hikers on the way to the summit, and as many as 20,000 people at a time visited Times Square in New York for Earth Day related events.

Source:  NBC

Source: NBC

Earth Day 1990 was once again a success, and it would eventually lead to Senator Nelson receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton five years later. It put environmentalism back in both the political and the public eye. 

By the time Earth Day 2000 rolled around, the number of participating countries had climbed even higher to 184 countries participating. The focus this time was on global warming, and the possibly cataclysmic results.

The impact of this Earth Day was profound. Now businesses and politicians were very aware of how much the environment meant to people, and they scrambled to take advantage of it.

Just two years after Earth Day 2000, California passed the Renewable Portfolio Standard, the eventual end goal being that at least half of California's utilities come from renewable sources by 2030. Given the size of the state, it was a huge success for environmental activists everywhere.

Electric and hybrid cars became a fashion statement, and consumers flocked to get more gas efficient vehicles. With the rising costs of gasoline, having a cheap way to refuel made them even more popular.

By the time Earth Day 2010 rolled around however, environmentalism was facing threat. While people still wanted to protect the environment, the oil industry was starting to fight back. Some people even stated that climate change was fake, and that there were no signs of the green house effect after all. Despite all this, environmentalists still gathered, and companies that were hesitant to change began to yield to the demands of people all around the world.

The changes from Earth Day have become pervasive throughout business and politics alike. Most companies now have a link on their website addressing sustainability and what their company is doing to reach it. Even companies that have nothing to do with the environment in their business, are making an effort to appeal to consumers by changing how they do business.

In some cases this is changing over to using only sustainable energy, using biodegradable materials, or using recycled materials in their products. The change in big business is becoming more common, and politics has been following behind, albiet at a somewhat slower pace.


Recently the Paris Climate Accord brought together many of the world's greatest powers. In total, 175 countries signed the pledge, agreeing to lower greenhouse emissions and deal with their own countries carbon footprints. Despite the agreement not going into effect for several years after the agreement was signed, many countries began making ambitious changes right away.

China in particular, one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases, has already made strides toward their goal. They have introduced coal caps in high coal consumption areas, introduced new legislation to make new buildings increasingly environmentally friendly, and started fining companies that polluted too much.

This has made them a world leader in the environmental front, and put them ahead of many other countries who are also struggling to support their environment. Another notable country making big changes to help the environment is Finland.

While Finland doesn't produce nearly the same amount of carbon emissions as China does, it has made notable strides in its own right. As one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the world. While reducing carbon emissions is an important part of the climate accord, so is sequestering as much as the green house gas emissions being produced as possible. This means forests, which are one of the greatest ways to help keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Finland has some great policies in place to help maintain their forest, and even have tourism based on how pristine and beautiful their landscape is. Their success at managing their sustainability has even gotten its own name, “The Finnish Model,” and is being used as an example of how to create sustainability in other countries. With an EPI of 90.68, Finland is leading the way in sustainability, and will hopefully be a model closely followed by other countries in their struggles against climate change.


Thanks to Earth Day in many respects, the environment has gotten a helping hand from countries all around the world. As glaciers melt and weather phenomenon related to global warming sweept the globe, more people are realizing that climate change is part of the problem.

The next major Earth Day celebration will be 2020. This anniversary is an important one because it will be the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and environmentalists everywhere are already gearing up to tackle it.

Many of the topics for Earth Day 2020 will be the same, but some new campaigns are being added in. One of the most important ones is the threat of plastic pollution in the world's oceans, and drawing awareness to the problems this plastic is causing.

Thanks to the throw away culture big business has created, we are accustomed to getting nearly every disposable item in its own plastic bottle or bag, and then throwing it away when we are finished with the disposable item inside. We throw it away, without considering the fact that there is no “away.”

While some of this material gets recycled, a lot of it ends up in the oceans. Vast quantities of plastic have ended up in the Oceans, creating huge rafts of floating debris in the gyres that form in the ocean. This plastic isn't just ugly—it kills wildlife. Sea turtles commonly mistake plastic bags for jelly fish and eat them, often resulting in death. Those that survive may not reproduce due to the plastic in their guts. Sea birds, fish, and other wildlife also end up eating and dying from the plastic, and the plastic itself causes changes in the PH of the ocean.

This will no doubt be a huge part of the campaign, and with the success of Earth Day's past, we can hope that this Earth Day will help provide more help to the environment by shedding light on this terrible problem caused by plastic pollution.

Earth Day has been around for 48 years, and it has seen sweeping change in how people view the environment. From the complete ignorance of what was going on and the terrible damage being done to the world, to knew science constantly being added, the last 48 years has seen major change in the world.

In 50 more years, we can hope that we will have changed our ways and become a more sustainable world, with greenhouse gas under control, throw away plastics banned, and more thoughtful people paying attention to what they do. These changes won't come without a fight though. It starts with individual people who choose to make changes in their own life, and also add their voice to others so that their government hears their demands.

Change can be as simple as carrying a reusable plastic bag to the market, or planting your own garden so your food does not have to travel thousands of miles in order to get to your plate. We can change the world just by making small changes in our own lives, a vital and important aspect of Earth Day itself. With our combined effort, we can make this planet a good one for the next generation. Hopefully, the world as a whole will try, and Earth Day 2070 will be a remarkable one.