Silent Spring

10 Fascinating Facts About Earth Day

Every year on April 22, trees are planted, litter is cleaned up, and awareness for the issues plaguing the planet are raised. In honor of the holiday, now in its 48th year, we’ve gathered together 10 fascinating facts about Earth Day.

1. EARTH DAY WAS CREATED THROUGH THE TIRELESS EFFORTS OF WISCONSIN SENATOR GAYLORD NELSON.

Senator Gaylord Nelson arrived in Washington in 1963 looking to make the fledgling conservation movement, sparked in part by Rachel Carson’s New York Times Bestseller Silent Spring, a part of the national discourse. After witnessing the aftermath of an oil spill in California in 1969, Nelson doubled down on his commitment to raising environmental awareness. Drawing inspiration from the energetic anti-war movement of the time, he enlisted support from both sides of the political spectrum, and on April 22, 1970, Earth Day was born.

2. JOHN F. KENNEDY PLAYED A ROLE IN EARLY EFFORTS TO PROMOTE ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION.

In 1963, Gaylord Nelson proposed a “conservation tour” to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, a member of President Kennedy’s “Best and Brightest” cabinet. Schlesinger privately endorsed the idea to the President, while Nelson wrote a direct memo to Kennedy, a bold move for a freshman senator from Wisconsin. Kennedy, however, was incredibly receptive, and on September 24, 1963, JFK embarked on a conservation-themed multi-state tour. The President, accompanied by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, as well as Nelson and a few additional senators, visited 11 states in five days. Nelson was disappointed in the President’s speeches, saying they “didn’t have much sweep or drama to them.” In addition, members of the press ignored environmental issues and instead focused their questions on the tense nuclear situation with the Soviet Union. It would be another seven years until Earth Day became a reality.

3. THE FIRST EARTH DAY SAW 20 MILLION AMERICANS TAKE TO THE STREETS.

Children sweeping a city park in New York City on Earth Day, circa 1970s. Getty

The first Earth Day marked a strange combination of boisterous rallies and sober reflection on the state of the planet. Protests, demonstrations, fundraisers, nature walks, speeches, concerts, and every sort of civic gathering imaginable took place at colleges, VFW halls, public squares, and parks across the United States on April 22, 1970. Environmental crusaders found themselves thrust into the limelight, and pop culture icons like poet Allen Ginsberg were asked to speak on behalf of Mother Earth. Some of the more colorful displays of the day included mock trials for polluting objects, like an old Chevrolet, which was sentenced to death by sledgehammer. (The car ultimately survived the beating and was donated to an art class.) In New York City, Earth Day celebrations effectively shut down parts of the city. Twenty thousand people packed into Union Square to see Paul Newman and hear a speech by Mayor John Lindsay, who arrived on an electric bus.

4. THE DATE OF EARTH DAY WAS SPECIFICALLY SELECTED TO MOBILIZE COLLEGE STUDENTS.

To head up the Earth Day project, Senator Nelson enlisted Denis Hayes, then a graduate student at Harvard University. As national coordinator, Hayes recruited a staff of 85 energetic young environmental crusaders and grassroots organizers, along with thousands of field volunteers, in order to promote the fledgling holiday across the nation. The team knew that in order to gain the most traction, college students would need to play a central role, as they did in the Vietnam protests of the era. The date that Hayes selected for the…