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The Heroes of Earth Day

To celebrate Earth Day on April 22, here’s a look at the environmentalists who started the eco holiday and inspired millions to help save the planet.

The first Earth Day celebrations took place on April 22, 1970 across the United States. Today, Earth Day events are now coordinated by The Earth Day Network in close to 200 countries across the globe making it the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year. 

Gaylord Nelson and The First Earth Day 

Earth Day was founded by Gaylord Nelson, who spearheaded the fight for environmental justice throughout the 20th century. Born in the small town of Clear Lake, Wisconsin in 1916, Nelson always had a love for the environment. He earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1942, served in the Navy during World War II, and then joined the world of politics as a state senator from 1949 to 1959 and then as governor from 1959 to 1963. He used his political platform to infuse the national political agenda with public consciousness about air and water pollution and to encourage environmental protections. Together with the national coordinator, Denis Hayes, Nelson brought the nation together for a “national teach-in on the environment” on April 22, 1970. The date has special significance because it coincides with the birthday of noted naturalist, preservationist, and Sierra Club founder, John Muir (April 21, 1838 – December 24, 1914). The National Park Service even celebrates “Birthday-Earth Day” in honor of both John Muir’s and Earth Day’s contributions to environmentalism.

The first Earth Day was a massive success. Millions of people participated in rallies, teach-ins, and school sponsored events from coast to coast and voiced their concerns about oil spills, pollution, raw sewage, toxic dump sites, pesticides, and wildlife extinction. In bringing together Republicans and Democrats, Earth Day galvanized Congress to develop many significant environmental safeguards including the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. 

Earth Day Goes Global with Denis Hayes 

Since the first Earth Day, the movement has gone global. In 1990, Denis Hayes organized an international collective, The Earth Day Network, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries to bring environmental issues onto the center stage of global politics. Recycling was a key issue broached on Earth Day 1990 and Hayes’ own interests in solar energy also brought focus to global warming and a push for clean energy. Earth Day 2000 boasted 5,000 environmental groups and a record 184 countries all bringing attention to pressing global environmental concerns. With 192 countries participating, Earth Day 2010 helped coordinate the world’s largest environmental service project—A Billion Acts of Green®–a global tree planting initiative that has since grown into reforestation effort known as The Canopy Project. Earth Day 2016’s theme was “Trees for the Earth,” and is a global effort to combat climate change by planting 7.8 billion trees – one for every person on the planet – by Earth Day 2020 (the 50th anniversary of Earth Day). You can support this campaign by donating one dollar for one tree.

Earth Day 2017

Earth Day 2017’s theme is “Environmental and Climate Literacy” and focuses on building global knowledge of environmental science and fluency in local and global ecological issues. Much like Nelson did on the very first Earth Day nearly 50 years ago, The Earth Day Network has created toolkits and other resources to help people across the world develop their own teach-ins with the goal of ensuring global environmental and climate literacy in 2017 and beyond. 

From Nelson to Hayes, the Heroes of Earth Day 

For his role in the establishment of Earth Day, Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 which is the highest honor given to civilians in the United States. Nelson introduced the first federal legislation to mandate fuel-efficiency standards and he helped establish landmark laws including the Wilderness Act, the National Trails Act, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the National Environmental Education Act. In 2002, the Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin at Madison was renamed in his honor. He lived to see 35 Earth Days and died in 2005. His legacy secured environmentalism a lasting place in national politics. 

Nelson’s partnership with Denis Hayes cemented the permanence of Earth Day. Hayes’ founding of The Earth Day Network expanded the movement across the globe. Hayes served as the head of the Solar Energy Research Institute in the 1980s and since 1992, Hayes has been President of the Bullitt Foundation which is dedicated to ecosystem health, resilient cities, healthy communities, and responsible energy. He has also written numerous books promoting environmental literacy. In 1999, Time magazine named Hayes a “Hero of the Planet” and he continues to be a leader in environmental and energy policy.