What is Earth Day? A Brief History of Our Ode to the Blue Marble

words :: Ben Osborne // cover photo :: Courtesy of Santi Visalli/Getty Images.

 Earth Day began in 1970 and brought on some serious changes to the way people and governments handle their natural surroundings. But what is it doing for the Earth now?

Earth Day, circa 1970. Photo :: Courtesy of Santi Visalli/Getty Images

I’ll confess—when Earth Day comes around, my cynical self see it as what I like to call an ‘Instagram Holiday’. Or, an opportunity for social media savants to build their personal brand by ‘advocating’ for the earth. Sure, things could be worse—but the cynical side of me can’t help but be a bit upset that for some, a holiday is nothing more than a chance to say ‘Hey, look at me, I care!’

With Earth Day on the way, and the chatter already beginning with those ahead of the social media curve, I asked myself—what does Earth Day really mean. I knew it meant more than just a chance for individuals to prop themselves up, and to find a personal reason to celebrate Earth Day, I was determined to dig deeper.

The Origins

The beginning of Earth Day can be traced back to the actions of two individuals—one that helped foster a collective consciousness of respect for the natural world. That person was Rachel Carson, who penned the paradigm-shifting book, Silent Spring. The book sold more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries and was the first true ringing of the alarm regarding the link between public health and the environment, while also raising concern for living organisms and the natural world surrounding us.

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While her book began to mobilize activists around the world, the man who put things into motion was a junior Senator from Wisconsin by the name of the Gaylord Nelson.

In the winter of 1969, Nelson witnessed a massive oil spill in his hometown of Santa Barbara. With a growing movement sparked by Carson’s book, Nelson was motivated to harness the energy of the masses to make a tangible difference on April 22, a date that fell between spring break and final exams, making it ideal to best be able to mobilize students and harness the energy of another hot topic at the time, the anti-war movement.

Earth Day 1970

 On April 22, 1970, the first annual Earth Day brought together 20 million Americans—10% of the population at the time. Individuals along with a variety of groups fighting against industrial pollution, power plants, the loss of wilderness and more came together to rally around a common cause.

The first Earth Day rally in New York City, April 22, 2970. Photo :: Courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The movement crossed political lines, bringing out both Republicans and Democrats at the time and eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S., and laws such as the Clean Air Act and more.

Going Global

 It wasn’t until 1990, 20 years after the first Earth Day, that the event went global. On that day, 200 million people from 140 nations participated, according to the Earth Day Network. Today, Earth Day brings in over 1 billion participants. The Earth Day Network works with 17,000 partners and organizations in 174 different countries

 What Exactly Does Earth Day Do?

 So, what exactly happens on Earth Day? Is it really just a chance to fill your feed with posts about your last adventure, or is there a way to tangibly make a change? Obviously, the more awareness about the beauty of our natural world, the better—there’s no denying that. But in order to solve the climate crisis real action is needed.

Beyond the mass gatherings, what is the tangible impact of Earth Day? It’s got to be more than just balloons and chalk. Photo :: Courtesy of Getty Images

 This year, the Earth Day Network, instead of the usual rallies and gatherings, is hosting a 24-hour digital rally, with 4 main initiatives: Speak Up, Vote, Act, Educate.

Each initiative empowers the individual—you can speak up on your social media platform, you can vote (when you have the opportunity)  for a leader that wants what is best for the Earth, you can change your lifestyle (act) to be more conscious of your consumption, and you can educate others.

Power In Numbers

After diving into the history of Earth Day, and its current state, I realized something. Maybe it is just an “Instagram Holiday” to some. But that’s not a bad thing. The more people that speak on their passion for the outdoors, share images and put out a call for action, the better. Maybe one of their followers decides it’s time to start composting because of that post.

We might not be able to gather in streets and make our voices heard, but there is still action to be taken. Photo :: Courtesy of Earth Day Network

Just like on Earth Day in 1970, when 20 million individuals went out and crowded the streets, each voice matters. Their hand-painted signs that were seen from the windows of the residents in whatever town they were in, is your Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Make a post on your feed, change one thing about your life, do some research on a local politician, donate to an environmental cause, or do it all. There are innumerable ways to make an effort on Earth Day, and no effort will go unnoticed—for every cynic, there are plenty of people whose minds you might be able to open up to a new way of thinking. Even if it’s just one impression you make, it’s more than worth your time. —ML