This Sunday, April 22nd, marks the celebration of Earth Day, a commemoration that first took place in 1970. We’re going to take a look at what brought about the decision to celebrate Earth Day in the first place, the immediate effect it had within the halls of Congress, and its lasting impact today. So, join us as we celebrate Earth Day 2012!

The roots of the modern environmental movement can be traced most clearly to the publication of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, in 1962, the first such book to draw people’s attention to the negative consequences of the use of DDT and other man-made pesticides on the environment and humans. Despite the controversy and awakening stirred by the book’s publication, the country was rather preoccupied throughout the 1960s with a number of foreign policy issues, most notably the Vietnam War; however, it was the grassroots efforts of the anti-war protest movement that inspired then-Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin to action in defense of the environment after he witnessed the horrible aftermath of a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California.


Senator Gaylord Nelson (Congressional Bioguide)

Modeling his idea on the sit-ins and protests around the country against the war in Vietnam, Senator Nelson would go on to organize a national “teach-in” about the environment and he got a Republican, Congressman Pete McCloskey, to co-sponsor the event. They then recruited Denis Hayes, a recent Harvard Law dropout who would go on to become a well-known environmental activist, to handle the organization and planning of the event. Due to their collective efforts, on April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took part in rallies across the country dedicated to cleaning up and preserving the environment.

In the House, the celebration of the first-ever Earth Day actually forced an alteration to the legislative calendar, something that was rather unusual at the time and still is today. Since so many members of Congress planned commemorative events in their home districts for that day, the House decided to adjourn on April 21st and return to session on April 23rd to accommodate these members. There was one exception to this, however, according to the Clerk of the House’s Art and History website; the members of the Subcommittee on Public Health and Welfare of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, which is today’s Energy and Commerce Committee, convened in Washington, DC to approve a bill aimed at reducing air pollution. The measure was approved unanimously, serving as a precursor to broader environmental legislation that would be enacted in the coming years.


Judy Moody and Denis Hayes in the Washington, DC Teach-in Office, April 22, 1970 (National Geographic)

The overall legislative impact of the first Earth Day was profound, resulting in the eventual passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the years immediately following, as well as numerous measures since. The movement begun by the celebration of the first Earth Day 42 years ago has grown substantially in its scope and membership ever since, and it has given rise to innumerable organizations dedicated to protecting all aspects of the environment and its many inhabitants throughout the world today.

Since Earth Day is on a Sunday this year, perhaps everyone can make some time to do something to help out, even if it is as simple as picking up some pieces of trash that you would normally walk past on any other day. Can’t hurt, can it?


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