It may be hard to imagine now, but in the first half of the 1900s, the majority of Americans saw air pollution as “the smell of prosperity” and were unaware of how dangerous smoke, sludge, gas, and other air and water pollutants were to both the environment and human health. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, was the first major call to action as Carson raised awareness about the dangerous links between pollution and living organisms — including humans.
As land, air, and water pollution affected more and more people in the mid-20th century, its impact became a growing concern in the United States. In 1969, Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, got the idea for a national “teach-in” that would call attention to the pollution problem around the world. On April 22, 1970, this first “Earth Day” brought out 20 million Americans from across the country to call for cleanup efforts for our environment.
Senator Nelson first considered Earth Day after witnessing the destruction from a massive oil spill in California. Nelson realized that the growing awareness of pollution inspired by Carson’s book, the youthful energy of the past decade’s social movements, and the increased interest in science that resulted from the space race and moon landing came together to create an ideal moment to call for environmental protection from the federal government.
That first Earth Day did just that, by not only raising awareness, but also leading to federal actions that improved the quality of our country’s air, water, and land, protecting humans, wildlife, and America’s piece of earth. Later in 1970, President Richard Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the years that followed, dozens of environmental laws were passed, protecting coastlines and starting the process of reducing pollution in our air and water.
While we still have work to do 52 years later, the actions inspired by the first Earth Day are some of the reasons we have cleaner air and safer water than Americans lived with in 1970. This success inspires us to keep working and adjust our approaches as growing innovation and new technology create added challenges — and opportunities — for protecting our environment.
So go out and celebrate!
This Earth Day, get outside. Look around and pay attention to the changes that spring brings to the natural world. Breathe the fresh air. And then share that joy with others to help call attention to the importance of protecting our most valuable resource, the planet we all call home.
To learn more about Earth Day, read A Brief History of Earth Day and Get Ready for Earth Day: April 22.
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