How The First Earth Day Came About

By: Billy I Ahmed

Today, April 22, people across the world will be observing Earth Day registering their concern about deteriorating state of environment and pronouncing resolve to arrest the detrimental trend.

On April 22, 1970, Earth Day was first observed in the USA. It was, "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy..." commented the American Heritage Magazine, in its October 1993 issue.

What is the purpose of Earth Day? How did it start? These are the questions most frequently asked. Actually, the idea for Earth Day evolved over a period of seven years starting in 1962. For several years, it had been troubling Senator Gaylord Nelson that the state of US environment was simply a non-issue in the politics of the country. Finally, in November 1962, an idea occurred to Nelson that was, he thought, a virtual cinch to put the environment into the political "limelight" once and for all. The idea was to persuade President Kennedy to give visibility to this issue by going on a national conservation tour. He flew to Washington to discuss the proposal with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who liked the idea.

So did the President. The President began his five-day, eleven-state conservation tour in September 1963. For many reasons the tour did not succeed in putting the issue onto the national political agenda. However, it was the germ of the idea that ultimately flowered into Earth Day.

Nelson, continued to speak on environmental issues to a variety of audiences in some twenty-five states. All across US, evidence of environmental degradation was appearing everywhere, and everyone noticed except the political establishment. The environmental issue simply was not to be found on the nation's political agenda. The people were concerned, but the politicians were not.

Six years had passed before the idea that became Earth Day occurred to Senator Nelson, while on a conservation speaking tour out West in the summer of 1969. At the time, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, called "teach-ins," had spread to college campuses all across US. Nelson took this opportunity -- why not organise a huge grassroots protest over what was happening to our environment?

He was convinced that if he could tap in the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the students' anti-war energy into the environmental cause, he could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the political agenda. It was a big gamble, but worth a try.

Then, at a conference in Seattle in September 1969, he announced that in the spring of 1970 there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment and invited everyone to participate. The wire services carried the story from coast to coast. The response was electrifying. It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air -- and they did so with spectacular exuberance. For the next four months, two members of his Senate staff, Linda Billings and John Heritage, managed Earth Day affairs out of his Senate office.

Five months before Earth Day, on Sunday, November 30, 1969, The New York Times carried a lengthy article by Gladwin Hill reporting on the astonishing proliferation of environmental events: "Rising concern about the environmental crisis.

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