History of Earth Day
A look into the history of Earth Day stemming back to 1970 and what Earth Day has looked like on Haverford’s campus over time.
April 22nd every year marks a day when people all over the world come together to celebrate the earth and push for its protection. You may know this date as Earth Day! A time when your local community holds a trash pick-up day or plants a tree in a local park. What you may not know is how Earth Day came to be and the inspiring organizers behind it.
The idea of Earth Day was ignited in 1970 by junior senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin with the help of young organizer and activist Denis Hayes1. In the decades leading up to 1970, Americans were being exposed to massive amounts of air pollution from leaded gas and industries were not concerned about their environmental or health impacts. Most people were naive to the issue of pollution as well because the dirty smell constantly consuming our air was viewed as a sign of economic success1.
These perceptions began to change leading up to 1970 after Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published, connecting pollution to public health and a series of disasters struck. There was a massive oil spill in an elite community of Santa Barbara, which broadcasted animals and humans covered in oil goo. Around the same time is when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire after a spark from a passing train ignited oil-soaked debris on the river’s surface2. The river was previously perceived as industrial infrastructure, but the newly elected mayor, Carl B. Stokes who was one of the first black mayors of a major city, changed the narrative by bringing the press on a pollution tour of the river.3 People across the country began to become startlingly aware of the effects that come along with air and water pollution, causing a call for action. Gaylord Nelson was one of the people extremely alarmed by the current environmental degradation, as well as being very inspired by the current student-led anti-war movement. Nelson had the idea to channel the powerful energy of these student movements and apply them to environmental awareness and protection.
Nelson recruited Republican congressmen Pete McCloskey to co-chair the movement and Denis Hayes to organize campus teach-ins. A staff of 85 individuals was created to ensure that Earth Day was made a great success. Hayes notes that before students were on board with the Earth Day movement, it was young women who were just starting families who got the momentum going. These women were concerned about the health effects that could impact their young children and eventually the student momentum followed2.
Nelson, McCloskey, and Hayes experienced great success in their first Earth Day for they were able to rally varying environmental groups and 20 million people (10% of the population) to take to the streets to demonstrate against 150 years of industrial pollution1. Soon to follow the impacts of Earth Day were seen through much bipartisan policy. Within the next couple of years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Environmental Education Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act were developed. These actions paved the way for industrial pollution accountability and future years of demonstrations that eventually turned into Earth Day being a global event reaching over 1 billion people1!
Now let's dive a bit into the history of environmental celebrations at Haverford. Our events archive tracks back to the late 1980s and shows a variety of campus-centered environmental events. In these deep archives there was not any mention of Earth Day celebrations, but there is record of a first Arbor Day celebration in 1901 with tree plantings, singing songs, and refreshments served by the Campus Club. In future decades, Arbor Day celebrations and spring tours took place in the week surrounding Earth Week and Arbor Day. In more recent years a normal Earth Week would involve a series of tree plantings with surrounding discussions, community electronic recycling events, and volunteer work days. However, COVID-19 has forced Haverford College Arboretum to get more creative with their Earth Week events in a more remote setting. In spring of 2020, the Arboretum hosted a virtual sustainability tour with the school’s sustainability fellow and a virtual Earth Week trivia via social media accounts. This year Earth Week continued to mold itself to the pandemic climate by holding virtual events like an Earthship Model Kit Workshop, Environmental Justice Alumni Panel, and a Call-In to Rep Mary Scanlon. However, the various green groups on campus were able to throw together some social distanced outdoor events including a trash pick up day, tree cookie decorating, a tree planting for the campus community, and Spring Fest: gardening, tye dying, and seeding!
Moral of the story, Nelson, McCloskey, and Hayes achieved their goal of creating campus momentum for protecting the environment. Around the globe, students and adults alike are not settling for performative environmental protection and, rather, putting their feet down and demanding fulfilling policy and advocacy.