Written by Freya Graham
Every year, on 22nd of April, people around the world celebrate Earth Day. Its mission is to ‘diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide’. What is Earth Day, and why is it important?
Earth Day started with an oil spill. In 1969, more than three million gallons of oil from the Union Oil petroleum company killed thousands of seabirds, dolphins, and seals across the coast of Santa Barbara, California. The environmental movement had already gained traction throughout the 1960s, spurred on by the publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring in 1962. The Santa Barbara oil spill ignited anger and galvanised activists who had previously been involved in anti-Vietnam and civil rights campaigns. Grassroots campaigners organised the ‘Get Oil Out’ initiative. Gaylord Nelson, a young Democratic Senator from Wisconsin, was flying from Los Angeles to Seattle during the spill. From his airplane window, he was shocked to see the scale of the oil spill along the California coast and wanted to take action.
Nelson’s initial focus was on education; he wanted to hold teach-ins in colleges. The teach-in protests had begun in response to the Vietnam War. Based on a seminar format, they were designed to be practical and action-orientated. Denis Hayes, a graduate student and activist, was recruited to lead the national campaign. Hayes decided to expand the educational initiative to schools as well, and coordinated clean-ups and tree planting in schools across the country. The 22nd April was purposefully chosen to reach students – the day fell between Spring Break and Final Exams for American students.
The run-up to the very first Earth Day in 1970 was aided by the United Auto Workers, a US labour union. The president of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther, donated $2000 to the campaign, and the union helped to print and mail posters and pamphlets ahead of the event. While the automotive industry was a major polluter, the first Earth Day demonstrated that automotive workers wanted to contribute to the environmental movement. Reuther said that ‘what good is a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighbourhood is burning down? What good is another week’s vacation if the lake you used to go to is polluted and you can’t swim in it and the kids can’t play in it?’.
According to some records, more than 20 million people took part in the first Earth Day, making it the biggest single-day protest in human history. Students took to the streets; in Denver, for instance, high schoolers arrived on bikes and started litter picking in the city. The event marked growing environmental consciousness in North America. In the years that followed the first Earth Day, there were a series of environmental laws passed in the US, including the National Environmental Education Act and the Clean Air Act.
Earth Day has grown since its 1970 inception and has since become the world’s largest civic event. In 1990, Earth Day expanded beyond the USA and went global, although its largest presence remains in the United States. Over 95% of primary and secondary schools in the US, as well as schools across 149 other countries, participate in Earth Day activities. In 2020, Earth Day Org launched a claimed literacy campaign, aiming to make climate education a core part of school curriculums, and the organisation successfully campaigned for legislation that provides $7 billion in grants to green low-income schools across the United States.
In 2021, Earth Day is centred on the theme ‘Restore Our Earth’. The theme will focus on repairing damage to communities and ecosystems across the world. Earth Day Org is holding a multi-channel livestream, starting at 5 pm British Summer Time. The digital event will feature workshops, panel discussions, and special performances, and will explore themes including environmental justice, citizen science, regenerative agriculture, and climate literacy. While many 2021 Earth Day events are digital, communities across the globe are also holding Clean Up sessions in person, guidelines permitting. Community action remains at the centre of the Earth Day ethos.
Politicians are also coming together on Earth Day, ahead of COP26 later this year. The Biden administration is holding a virtual climate summit to mark Earth Day, with forty countries invited to presentations and panel discussions. After withdrawing from the Paris Agreement during Donald Trump’s presidency, this Earth Day is Biden’s chance to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to climate goals. White House sources suggest that Biden is expected to announce a new emissions pledge at the Earth Day climate summit, with an aim to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030.
Some argue that aspects of Earth Day are superficial – plenty of companies promote Earth Day messages will continuing to pollute, and to many, it can seem like words over actions. With education programmes at its core, though, Earth Day remains an important part of raising climate awareness and engaging people in conversations about the future of our planet.
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