Today, April 22 2020, is the 50th anniversary of the first celebration of Earth Day. The first Earth Day in 1970 was a major mobilizing event of inestimable historical significance. The event was such a success because it came at the right time as awareness of human effects on the balance of nature was growing. Rachel Carson’s 1962 best-selling book, Silent Spring, laid the groundwork for a growing concern over man’s negative impact on the environment. 1969 was a year rife with high-profile environmental disasters; there was a major oil spill off the coast of southern California and Ohio’s Cuyahoga river caught fire. At the end of the year, concern for the environment rivaled concern for the Vietnam War.
Senator Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin) announced his intentions for an Earth Day event six months prior to April 1970, which was enough time for the excitement to spread and for countless groups to become involved. A wide range of participants helped to organize Earth Day events and the offerings varied from speeches, teach-ins, movies, workshops, and more. The event inspired lifelong environmentalists and lead to the formation of many new environmental groups, lobbies, and services.
Florida State University participated in the first Earth day with a series of events on Landis Green including speeches, information booths, music, and movies. The theme was “Do Not Ask For Whom the Bell Tolls, It Tolls For Thee.”
The immediate effects of Earth Day were significant: the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, the passing of the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The power of Earth Day extends beyond the day itself, the momentum gained by the event leant credibility to events that followed and engendered a generation of activists.
The twentieth anniversary celebration of Earth Day in 1990 united people in countries on all seven continents in unprecedented numbers to voice their concerns for environmental issues. Whereas the 1970 celebration was a grassroots effort, the 1990 celebration was run like a political campaign with advisors and consultants and a budget 15 times larger than the original event. The worldwide turnout for Earth Day 1990 was double what the organizers expected, the event united the most participants ever concerned about a single cause. The greatest success of Earth Day 1990 was the worldwide participation and attention it brought to the environmental issues plaguing the entire world. Environmental troubles were no longer simply viewed as the problem of white Americans but as a growing global concern.
Florida State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives and FSU Sustainable Campus are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with the launch of a digital exhibit, Earth Day 50: Environmental Activism at FSU and Beyond. This exhibit was originally curated to be installed as a physical exhibit in Strozier library, but installation was postponed due to covid-19. Changing to a digital platform allows the story of Earth Day and environmental activism at FSU to continue to be shared. Please visit https://fsuearthday50.omeka.net/to learn more about the celebration of Earth Day at FSU, in Florida, and beyond.
Cahn, Robert, and Patricia Cahn. “Did Earth Day Change the World?” Environment 32, no. 7 (September 1990): 16–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/00139157.1990.9929039.
Rome, A. “The Genius of Earth Day.” Environmental History 15, no. 2 (2010): 194–205. doi:10.1093/envhis/emq036.