The Origins of Earth Day


by Benjamin Palumbo, Holy Trinity Green Team Committee Member


April 22 will mark the 52nd anniversary of Earth Day. What began as a uniquely American event in 1970 will be celebrated throughout the world. Given the undeniable threat to the planet—and of course to our lives and those of our loved ones—the international scope is quite fitting.


What led to the creation of Earth Day? It seems it was a culmination of concerns that were first described by Rachel Carson in her 1962 ground breaking book, “Silent Spring,” which sold half a million copies in 24 countries. Sensitivity to pollution problems grew until, in 1969, a disastrous oil spill off Santa Barbara ravaged that California coast.


One of the observers of the Santa Barbara calamity was Democratic U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Prior to his election to the Senate in 1962, Nelson had served two terms as Governor of Wisconsin. Coming from a rural part of the state, he always had appreciated its beauty. While campaigning he had become aware of the Wisconsin citizenry’s concern for waterway pollution and other environmental degradations, and after taking office he acted vigorously to take corrective action. He was so successful, that he became known as “The Conservation Governor.”

After his election to the Senate, he remained committed to preserving the environment, assisting President Kennedy in this area of his administration’s program.


After Nelson witnessed the devastation wrought by the Santa Barbara spill, he reached out to California Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey. In an admirable example of bipartisanship—so desperately needed today—the two conceived the idea of Earth Day. They were not interested in creating a formal top-down type organization, but were inspired by the example of so much spontaneous activity among young people fighting against the Vietnam War and for civil rights that they decided the celebration should arise from the grass roots. They reached out to a young activist by the name of Dennis Hayes and gave him the job of building that grassroots movement. He was so successful that on that first Earth Day, 20 million people turned out to demonstrate and commit to environmental activism. Hayes went on to found the Earth Day Network and expanded it to 180 nations.


Meanwhile, Congress had been considering legislation introduced in 1969 by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Democrat of Washington State, known as the Environmental Protection Act. It passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and House near the end of 1969 and was signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970. There is little doubt that the nationwide activity to establish Earth Day had a positive impact on the politics of enacting this important law. And from that new law sprang numerous initiatives dealing with all sorts of environmental hazards.


Senator Nelson summed up his view of the environment with these words: “Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.” There is little doubt that Nelson and those who gave us Earth Day would have recognized global warming, plastic pollution, and the still-in-existence, lead water pipes as existential threats needing strong and sustained action. Let us pray that we will see more and more action at the grassroots level to deal with these threats, and that more and more decision makers—both public and private—DECIDE to take the very overdue action necessary to protect us.


As Pope Francis wrote in LAUDATO SI’: “Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it. That we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction…”


Live on Earth Day!