04 Oct Earth Day

Nelson envisioned a large-scale, grassroots environmental demonstration to “Shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.”

We have all heard of earth day, but what exactly does it mean? To give you an idea, the Earth Day Network estimates that more than a billion people participate in earth day activities each year, making it the largest secular civil event in the world.

The brainchild of US Democrat Senator, Gaylord Nelson, the first Earth Day took place in 1970 and was essentially a day of education about environmental issues. Nelson, considered by many as the leader of the modern environment movement was inspired by the anti-war protests of the late 60’s, and the ‘teach-ins’ taking place across university campuses in the US. His hope was that by raising public awareness of air and water pollution he could bring environmental causes into the national spotlight.

These days we are all too familiar with the impact of the green house effect, climate change and pollution, but back then people were only just starting to realise that industrialisation was ravaging the environment. Big petrol guzzling cars filled the streets, factories pumped out noxious pollutants into the air and dangerous pesticides spilled into rivers and lakes; while the term, let alone the practice of recycling was barely known. Nelson envisioned a large-scale, grassroots environmental demonstration to “Shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda,” and in so doing tapped into a communal consciousness claiming, “The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air—and they did so with spectacular exuberance.” According to the senator, Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. “We had neither the time nor resources to organise 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organised itself.” April 22nd was chosen and rallies were held in major cities across the states, attended by thousands and drawing celebrities such as Paul Newman and Ali McGraw.

Earth Day kicked off the “Environmental decade with a bang,” as Senator Nelson put it. During the 1970’s, a number of important pieces of environmental legislation were passed, including the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act. The Environmental Protection Agency was also set up with the task of protecting human health and safeguarding the natural environment—air, water and land.

In 1990, Earth Day went global, with over 200 million people in 174 countries participating. By Earth Day 2000, over 5000 environmental groups had joined the cause with activities ranging from a travelling, talking drum chain in Gabon, Africa, to a gathering of hundreds of thousands of people at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. These days, Earth Day Network collaborates with more than 17,000 partners and organisations in 174 countries.

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Earth Day builds community activism around the world through a broad range of events. Festivals and community events bring people together and give environmental groups the chance to present their causes and their solutions. In 2010, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of first earth day, Earth Day Network launched the ‘Billion Acts of Green’ campaign with the goal of registering one billion actions, in advance of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012. The goal was reached on Earth Day 2012 and the stage set for the next billion acts. Individuals can register all the actions they’re taking to protect the environment – from riding a bike instead of driving, to planting a garden, to volunteering with a community clean-up. And organisations can register actions such as community environmental meetings, tree plantings, large-scale light bulb changes, workplace renewable energy retrofits, and Earth Day events. Some of the more notable acts under a ‘Billion Acts of Green’ include the instalment of 5,000,000 energy efficient stoves in Africa by the Paradigm Project – reducing the number of trees that need to be cut down for cooking and the harmful emissions to the environment. On earth Day 2011, Green Club Afghanistan planted 28 million trees to replace green space lost due to the conflict, while the European Union Branch of Surfrider Foundation recorded 42,064 pounds of trash picked up on beaches across Europe. 1,000,000 solar panel kits were also distributed throughout Mauritius to harness safe, clean energy.


The fact is Earth Day is every day, and every little act, whether changing light bulbs, remembering to switch your lights off, or carrying your own reusable bag to the super market is an act of green.