Earth Day History and Transformation

The launch of Earth Day back in 1970 marked a turning point for environmentalism and planet activists worldwide. More than 50 years later, what has changed?

  • The global population has more than doubled since 1970, increasing from 3.7 to 7.8 billion.
  • Humans are using more land. In 1970, land use (for grazing, cropland and built up areas) totaled 4.5 billion hectares, rising to 4.92 billion hectares in 2015.
  • Three-fourths of new infectious diseases originate from animals – including COVID-19 – causing outbreaks at a never before seen frequency.
  • More carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use is released into the environment, increasing from ~25 GtCO2 in 1999 to ~37 GtCO2 in 2019.
  • We’re eating more meat with the world’s total meat consumption rising from 27.01 kg/person in 1970 to 43.22 kg/person in 2013.
  • We’re using more plastic. In the 1970s, 35 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally, mounting to 381 million tonnes in 2015.
  • Since the first Earth Day, the global average temperature has increased, rising at a rate of 0.32°F (0.18°C) per decade.

Earth Day History – A Look Back at the First 50 Years

Since 1970, the natural systems and resources that we rely on have deteriorated. Thankfully, we have also changed as a society over the years.

Below details these changes and how Earth Day has encouraged positive shifts in human behavior, perspectives and cultural values across the globe.

Political Shifts: Earth Day Gains Momentum Despite Political Turbulence

The 1970s brought in a period of substantial environmental legislation to the U.S. which included the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Superfund, Toxic Substances Control Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) was created and thanks to Carson’s work, harmful pesticides and insecticides were banned.

During this period, president Jimmy Carter supported the drive for new and improved environmental law which continued throughout his term up until 1981. Carter signed 14 ratifications including funding of alternative energy and protection of California’s redwood forests and 100 million acres of Alaskan land. The 1970s were coined the Environmental Decade for a reason.

10 years later, Earth Day began to face some opposition. Federal environmental regulation switched course within the U.S. with President Ronald Reagan’s long-standing antipathy to this regulation. On taking office, Reagan’s first initiatives overrode much of Carter’s environmental agenda.

March of 1983 marks a little-noticed but historical act in Reagan’s presidency. Reagan issued a proclamation confirming American sovereign rights and control over all living and nonliving resources within 200 miles of U.S. coasts.

Earth Day History of the 1990s

Earth Day’s resilience enabled it to move to the world stage in the 1990s, paving the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. More than 100 heads of state met for the first international Earth Summit, addressing urgent problems of environmental protection and socio-economic development. This was no doubt a political win for Earth Day.

However, by the turn of the century, Earth Day once again faced turbulent political opposition. George Bush came into the U.S. political arena as president, a period said to have a concerted assault on many green organizations.

The Bush administration has introduced this pervasive rot into the federal government which has undermined the rule of law, undermined science, undermined basic competence and rendered government agencies unable to do their most basic function even if they wanted to. We’re excited just to push the reset button.” – Josh Dorner, Sierra Club

A hostile tone, but not one without due course. During his first 100 days in office, Bush reneged on a campaign that promised to regulate carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants and announced America would not implement the Kyoto Protocol – a global climate change treaty. Earth Day in the U.S. struggled under these political constraints.

Earth Day History of the 2000s

Political support improved under Barack Obama in 2009. Obama introduced the largest marine reserve in the world, signed a bipartisan ban on microbeads, raised fuel efficiency standards and signed the Paris agreement in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Sadly, this agreement was later revoked under Trump’s presidency starting in 2017, giving Earth Day and its mission yet another political hit. The Trump administration rolled back 98 environmental rules and regulations and sought to gain energy independence based on finite fossil fuels. Trump also pulled America out of the Paris climate agreement.

It’s been a turbulent 50 years but the political landscape is brightening for Earth Day to continue on its nature-protecting trajectory. Now in 2021, President Joe Biden has reentered the U.S. into the Paris Climate agreement, with additional plans to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and reach zero emissions no later than 2050.

Environmental Activism

On April 22nd, 1970, 20 million people took to the streets across the U.S. in protest to stop human-attributed environmental destruction. Every stretch of New York’s Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic and congress adjourned. Earth Day had created an environmental movement on a never-before-seen mass, coherent scale.

The general mood of Earth Day activities continued to be festive and celebratory up into the 1980s. 1990 marked another notable historic event, Earth Day’s 20 International Peace Climb. This was an expedition to reach the summit of Mount Everest during Earth Week, a marketing move aimed to raise awareness for nature protection. The group collected two tons of trash left behind from previous expeditions.

Earth Day Expands Its Reach Through Globalization and Digitalization

From 1990 and onward, Earth Day became a globally-celebrated event. Advancements in technology and marketing tools, increased global access to televisions and radio, and multi-million dollar budgets widened the scope and reach of environmental activism.

By the turn of the century, the growing popularity of the internet allowed activists to connect from all corners of the world. Noteworthy activism and environmental awareness during the early 2000s includes Google’s first Earth Day doodle in 2001, voter registration for Earth Day in 2004, the partnership of Earth Day with the Green Apple Music and Arts Festival and the creation of the online action center By this point, Earth Day has expanded its activist reach by leveraging modern forms of digital communication, along with more traditional means via festivities and celebrations. Thus, the message of Earth Day only gained momentum.

For instance, in 2015, Earth Day was part of a steady drumbeat towards the Paris climate talks, a pivotal year for the environmental movement. A binding treaty on climate change was signed by 197 countries on April 22nd, 2016. This shows the political influence Earth Day was starting to gain globally.

Today, we’re seeing Earth Day championing environmental ambassadors such as Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg. Thunberg has used Earth Day as a springboard to capture the public eye, communicating decades of warnings by policymakers, scientists and the growing body of young activists. The aim is to drive political, cultural and behavioral shifts needed to protect nature.

[On Greta Thunberg] “Your voice – still, calm and clear – is like the voice of our conscience. When I listened to you, I felt great admiration, but also responsibility and guilt. I am of your parents’ generation, and I recognize that we haven’t done nearly enough to address climate change and the broader environmental crisis that we helped to create.” – UK Environment Secretary Micheal Gove

The role of digital and media platforms has never been more prevalent with COVID-19 pushing campaigns online. Earth Day 2021, Restore Our Earth, will be a digital event open to the global public.

Earth Day Targets Climate Change Cynicism Through Education

In 1968, the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) delivered a report titled Sources, Abundance, and Fate of Gaseous Atmospheric Polluters. The report was one of the earliest attempts to grapple with the impacts of rising carbon dioxide levels, which the Stanford research warned “could bring about climatic changes.

It took another 7 years before our changing climate was defined as global warming – the phrase did not appear in a peer-reviewed journal until 1975. And it was another 20 years before NASA famed scientist, James Hansen, testified before Congress that “global warming has begun.

Educating the cause and effects of climate change has arguably been the greatest challenge for Earth Day over the last 50 years. Challenge lies in the cynicism of climate change deniers, well-funded oil lobbyists, reticent politicians and the disinterested public.

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make the U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” – Donald Trump

In 2006, Earth Day targeted this cynicism with expansion into Europe, holding speeches and events in most EU countries, e.g. Festival on Climate Change. In 2008, Earth Day galvanized millions of people across the globe in the Call For Climate campaign. For the U.S., this campaign challenged the public to make one million calls to Congress to push climate change legislation. Another Earth Day campaign in 2013 used the #faceofclimate hashtag to collect inspiring and relevant images to be displayed in colleges at events globally.

After years of opposition, the global awareness and recruitment that Earth Day brought about helped steer the political and public shifts needed to act on climate. In 2016, political action was secured by the UN’s 2016 Paris Agreement.

In 2021, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) questioned 1.2 million people in 50 countries on climate change and concluded that people want climate action. 69% of those aged 14 -18 stated there is a climate emergency and 58% of those over 60, agreed. Two-thirds of people around the world share this view.

Social Diversity and Inclusivity: Earth Day Targets White Supremacy and Rallies Young Activists

The environmental movement has undergone two major shifts since 1970. First, the call for more social diversity has increased and secondly, there is a growing trend of young activists taking the lead.

Environmentalism is very white. It’s noted that racism and white supremacy have long excluded black, brown and indigenous people in environmental policy and conservation. For instance, the largest U.S. conservation organization, the Sierra Club, acknowledged racist views held by founder, author and conservationist John Muir. Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, sought to reexamine the organization’s past ideals and role in perpetuating white supremacy. The organization aims to restructure itself to include more indigenous and POC leadership and to repair years of harm from racism and discrimination.

A 2014 study examined 191 U.S. conservation and preservation organizations, 74 government environmental agencies and 28 environment grant-making foundations. The study concluded that ethnic minorities did not exceed 16% of board members or staff of environmental organizations.

Even though communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards, the environmental workforce remains overwhelmingly white.” – Dorceta Taylor, professor of environmental justice and food systems

A follow-up study published in 2019 by Stefanie K. Johnson showed little had changed in the last 5 years. The study reviewed 40 NGOs and foundations to find that only 20% of staff were non-white. In addition, a 2020 study by Media Matters for America indicated that a mere 10% of people featured on climate change media were people of color.

2020’s Black Lives Matter movement highlights a systemic issue crawling under the woodwork in many corners of society, and the environmental movement is no exception. The lack of social diversity and social justice remains clearly prevalent.

It seems hypocritical to preach the interconnectedness of nature and humanity while turning a blind eye to racial injustice and the lack of social diversity. Environmental work is deeply connected with social justice and inclusivity. Since its birth in 1970, Earth Day has engaged people of all cultures, races and creeds in celebration of their relationship with nature and their potential to protect it. As Earth Day founder and U.S. Senator, Gaylord Nelson, said:

Our goal is not just an environment of clean air, water, and scenic beauty while forgetting about the worst environments in America. Our goal is for an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings, and all other living creatures.” –  Senator Gaylord Nelson

On recalling her father’s vision for an environmental movement, Tia Nelson accurately expresses, “We will have work to do.

The massive global scale on which Earth Day occurs creates an opportunity for inclusivity and elevating the voices of those too often silenced. It’s a day where everyone is working towards the same goal – to protect our planet and our future as a species. This helps to break down the social injustices ubiquitous to environmentalism.

Earth Day Today

Another shift Earth Day has seen in recent years is growing activism from younger generations. Over the years, increased studies on our environmental impact and media exposure has led to a greater awareness from the general public. Yet, as society continues to function on unsustainable methods and restorative opportunities are missed, younger generations will bear the greatest vulnerability and risk.

It comes as no surprise to learn that polls find young adults to be particularly concerned about global warming. A 2018 Gallup analysis found a global warming age gap in the beliefs, attitudes and risk perceptions. 70% of adults aged 18-34 worry about global warming compared to 56% of those aged 55+.

As a result, younger generations are more likely to get involved in political activism, take personal accountability for their actions and vote for environmental protection policies. As more youth raise their voice in support of climate action and better environmental policy, they are becoming the catalysts of much needed repair and accountability in the world.

Resources For Earth Day Participation

The theme of Earth Day 2021 is Restore Our Earth. Due to the ongoing pandemic, this event will be an online occasion but don’t let that stop you from getting involved!

Between April 20-22, you can join the world’s leaders for Earth Day:

  • April 20th: Earth Day begins with the global youth climate summit led by Earth Uprising in collaboration with My Future My Voice, OneMillionOfUs, plus more.
  • April 21st: Educational International will lead the Teach for the Planet: Global Education Summit. This is a multilingual virtual summit to span across several time zones and feature prominent activists from every continent.
  • April 22nd: will host its second Earth Day Live digital event here, beginning at 12pm EST. This day will include workshops, panel discussions and special performance focusing on the concept of Restore Our Earth. World climate leaders, grassroots activists, nonprofit innovators, thought leaders, industry leaders, artists, musicians and influencers will come together to discuss today’s greatest environmental and social challenges and collaborate on solutions.

Below are additional resources for engaging this Earth Day. This is a great opportunity to discuss and collaborate with colleagues, family and friends on the importance of environmental awareness and taking action.



Workplace Activities:

  • Start a contest, e.g. recycle the most plastic, reduce paper consumption or find the most creative replacements for common work items.
  • Organize a screening of Earth Day related films.
  • Organize a book club for discussing books on today’s environmental and social issues.
  • Invite environmental specialists to give a talk at your work.
  • Explore electronic options for sharing Earth Day materials, e.g. share articles on sustainability via email or social media, post links in your Slack channel, publish your own Earth Day content to your blog.
  • Give employees the option to come up with their own Earth Day project, e.g. start a podcast or a Twitter storm.
  • Organize a green team to help manage sustainability projects in your workplace.
  • Hold an educational event to communicate the importance of business sustainability and how your company can become more socially and environmentally responsible, e.g. Green Business Bureau certification, conducting sustainability audits, assessing the sustainability of your vendors, and following ISO 9000 and 14000 standards.

Whether it’s a small improvement or a giant leap forward, let’s take action this Earth Day and help build a more sustainable and secure future for everyone.

About the Author

Jane Courtnell is a Content Writer for Process Street. With a Biology degree from Imperial College London and further studies at Imperial College’s Business School, Jane has an enthusiasm for science communication and how biology can be used to solve business issues, such as employee wellbeing, culture, and business sustainability.

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