What Does Earth Day Celebrate, Anyway?

Earth Day Blog

Earth Day is one of those holidays that can be easy to overlook, and its meaning may seem a little unclear. What are we celebrating again? Our planet? Certainly we’re all happy to have one, but isn’t that a little vague?

Well, look no further!

A Holiday for a Cause

Simply put, Earth Day was created to encourage widespread action to protect the environment. It was first celebrated in 1970, initiated by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. He had personally witnessed the massive damage caused by a huge oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969, and felt compelled to do something.

At that time, grassroots activism had become widespread, but was mostly focused on political issues. Senator Nelson saw an opportunity to apply the grassroots model to the burgeoning environmental movement, which was mostly composed of groups applying themselves to very specific situations and issues, without a sense of common identity. At the time, awareness of environmental issues was very new, but people were beginning to observe the effects of air and water pollution.

The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. Twenty million Americans participated that year, many of them through their primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, and through events organized by individual towns and cities across the US. Years later, Senator Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, in recognition of his contribution.

Earth Day Expands!

Earth Day went global in 1990, bringing together 200 million people in 141 countries. That year, a historic coalition of mountaineers from the US, USSR, and China joined together to climb Mt. Everest in what was called the Earth Day 20 International Peace Climb.

Led by Jim Whittaker, who had been the first American to summit Mt. Everest many years earlier, the climb was the first time representatives of those nations had undertaken a climb together, let alone one of that magnitude.

Earth Day celebrations during the 90s were characterized by a big push for recycling, and the International Peace Climb was no exception – the team collected more than 2 tons of trash that had been left behind by former climbers.

Earth Day 2013

Earth Day has only gained popularity in the intervening years. April 22, 2013 is the 43rd Earth Day, and this year’s festivities are expected to include more than 1 billion people in 192 countries.

This year’s theme is “The Face of Climate Change,” and the Earth Day Network collected images from all over the world to illustrate not only the people, animals, and places affected by climate change, but also “ the collective power of individuals taking action across the world.” You can see some of those images here.

What are you doing to celebrate Earth Day? What kind of changes have you made to “green” your lifestyle?

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