The world has been celebrating Earth Day on April 22 every year since 1970. That makes the event over half a century old. However, not that many people know how it all came to be in the first place. Here is a brief history of Earth Day — as well as a handful of ideas for free activities you can do with your friends and family to mark the occasion this year!
The Origins of Earth Day: An Oily Beginning
On January 28, 1969, a Union Oil rig just six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, blew out. The incident resulted in the spilling of some three million gallons of oil — the equivalent of four and a half Olympic swimming pools — an 800 square-mile oil slick, and the death of over 10,000 dolphins, seabirds, seals, and sea lions.
At the time, the Santa Barbara blow-out was the largest oil spill in history. It has since been outranked by the 1989 Exxon Valdez and 2010 Deepwater Horizon spills. The disaster ignited a large-scale public campaign for more stringent environmental regulations, widespread environmental education, and an annual awareness-raising event.
From a National Teach-In to a Global Event
At a 1969 UNESCO Conference in San Francisco, peace activist John McConnell proposed to hold a joint celebration of planet Earth and global peace on March 21, 1970, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. That inspired U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson to suggest a nationwide teach-in on environmental topics. Senator Nelson joined forces with activist Denis Hayes. Together, they helped organize the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
The initiative proved uniquely popular. It drew support even from non-environmental organizations like the United Auto Workers, which played a key role in financing and organizing the event. Eventually, the 1970 Earth Day brought more than 20 million Americans on the streets. To date, it remains the largest one-day protest in history.
For the next two decades, the main focus of Earth Day was on the United States. Then, in 1990, the organizers turned it into a global initiative that originally spanned 141 nations. Today, Earth Day is a worldwide event coordinated by EarthDay.org that brings together more than one billion people in 193 countries (and counting).
The five long-term focus areas of Earth Day are:
- Climate action
- Plastic and pollution
- Science and education
- People and communities
- Conservation and restoration
The Paris Agreement: A New Dawn for the Environment?
On Earth Day 2016, the United States and more than 190 other countries signed the landmark Paris Agreement. The U.S. withdrew from the Agreement in 2020 but rejoined shortly thereafter in 2021.
The legally binding Paris Agreement is unprecedented in scope and represents a major victory for the international green movement. Among other things, the treaty seeks to:
- Curb greenhouse gas emissions
- Limit global warming to below 2°C (35.6°F)
- Achieve a climate-neutral planet by the middle of this century
What to Do on Earth Day
There are many Earth Day activities you could participate in together with your friends and family. And the best part is that most of them are 100% free of charge! You can find events near you using EarthDay.org’s interactive map feature or come up with your very own initiatives — the only limit is your creativity.
If you want to organize your own Earth Day event, here are some ideas you could explore:
Clean Up Your Neighborhood
Your neighborhood is as much a part of this planet as the Brazilian rainforest or the Great Barrier Reef. Not everyone has funds or time to spare to support environmental campaigns, but most of us can help clean up our neighborhood on our day off. Simply round up your neighbors, hand everyone a garbage bag, and collect all the trash you can find in your neighborhood or the local park.
Plant a Tree
Did you know that a single mature tree can absorb more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide in just one year? And if you plant it near your house, it can help dampen outside noise and provide you with some much-welcome shade in the hot summer months. It is a win-win for everyone!
Organize Educational Activities
Knowledge is power: the better we understand how the environment works, the better able we will be to fight climate change. With that in mind, consider paying a visit to your nearest science museum, reading a book on climate change, or organizing a home screening of an environmental documentary for your friends and family.
Hold a Green Fundraiser
Is there a green cause you really care about? If so, a great way to support it would be to organize a fun fundraiser event for your local community and donate the proceeds. You can do a bake sale, a raffle, an online crowdfunding campaign, a pledge challenge — or all of the above!
Support an Environmental Campaign
Do you have a political streak? Then you might want to consider signing and popularizing green petitions, lobbying your local representatives, or writing articles and opinion pieces for blogs and other media outlets.
Volunteer for a Local Organization
Perhaps the best way to contribute to Earth Day efforts is by donating your time and work. Simply find a local environmental or animal protection charity that accepts volunteers and ask if you could help out in any way.