Millions celebrate Earth Day every April 22, but how many people know how it all got started? In honor of the 44th installment of this annual holiday, it’s time to find out more about its surprising origins and the change it continues to inspire.
Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin, announced his idea for an environmental “teach-in” in 1969; he hoped to bring Americans together to spread awareness about how to protect their planet. Nelson was among a small but growing population of Americans who were troubled by oil spills, chemical fires, pesticide revelations, disappearing forests, and pollution in the 1960s. On April 22 of the following year, millions showed up to protests on the very first Earth Day. In the midst of the Vietnam War, Americans began to turn their attentions toward the changes happening at home.
Nelson eventually received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in honor of this work. But Clinton wasn’t the first U.S. leader to take notice; Nelson influenced the policies and ideas of several previous presidents. Just two months before his tragic assassination, President John F. Kennedy heeded Nelson’s advice and embarked on the National Conservation Tour. Kennedy, Nelson, and several officials visited eleven states on the five-day environmental tour, which Nelson hoped would increase awareness of environmental concerns throughout the nation.
Just six months after that first Earth Day, Pres. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which still monitors our nation’s natural resources, including the status of its many dwindling plant and animal species. The country has come a long way since then, but issues like climate change make Earth Day more important than ever. In an effort to narrow down the many challenges and risks that the planet faces today, recent Earth Days have followed a specific theme. This year’s theme, Green Cities, calls for a focus on sustainability, innovation, and education. Last year focused on The Face of Climate Change; other previous themes include Mobilize the Earth and Clean Energy.
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