By Kate Stone
Earth Day is celebrated every year on April 22, and Earth Day 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of this event. Each year, Earth Day has a theme that gets more specific than simple “Earth.” The theme for Earth Day 2020 is climate action. This encompasses the challenge as well as the opportunities to take meaningful and long-lasting action on the climate change crisis.
A brief history of Earth Day
The year 1969 was a tumultuous and exciting year in American history. The Jackson Five debuted as the opening act for Diana Ross in concert at the L.A. Forum. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by the great author and poet Maya Angelou, was published. Xerox invented the laser printer. The National Women’s Hall of Fame opened its doors in Seneca Falls, New York. And an oil slick on the Cuyahoga River, polluted from decades of industrial waste, caught fire in Cleveland—again. The photo of the fire that ended up in TIME the following month was actually from a much more devastating fire in 1952. The 1969 fire wasn’t the culmination of a pollution problem; it was more like the final straw for people who were already changing their relationship with the environment. That was when the concept that we now know as environmentalism really began to take shape. In 1968, Cleveland’s voters passed a $100 million bond initiative to clean up the Cuyahoga River.
But the article in TIME spurred a nationwide movement that ushered in the first Earth Day in 1970 when 20 million Americans (about 10 percent of the United States population at the time) took to the streets to march on behalf of environmental health and protection. The country had seen oil spills, thick air pollution, and rivers so heavily polluted that they caught fire. Earth Day was a unified response to an environment visibly in crisis.
On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans—10 percent of the US population at the time—took to the streets of hundreds of cities and to college campuses to protest both deliberate and unintentional disregard for the health of the environment and to demand a more sustainable way forward for our planet.
The first Earth Day is credited with launching the modern environmental movement and is now recognized as the planet’s largest civic event.
Climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable.earthday.org
Does Earth Day make a difference?
Earth Day creates a shared focal point and a reminder that we need our environment and it needs us. The first Earth Day led to a wave of unprecedented action. It heralded the passage of landmark environmental laws in the United States, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Many countries followed suit and enacted similar laws.
In 2016, the United Nations chose Earth Day as the day when the historic Paris Agreement on climate change was signed into force. So the short answer to whether Earth Day makes a difference is a resounding all-caps YES. By working together, we have made a difference and will continue to do so.
How can I participate in Earth Day 2020?
Today, Earth Day is an international celebration of the environment. Outside, spring has sprung! But with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day upon us, we are sheltering in place, practicing self-quarantine in the face of the novel coronavirus. Therefore, Earth Day 2020 will take to the internet with Earth Day Live. Find a digital event in your community or register one of your own at https://www.earthday.org/earth-day-live/ and join in on April 22, 2020.
With our shared environment as well as with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all in this together. Be well, everyone.
—Kate Stone is the Editor in Chief of Science Connected Magazine. A journalist with 25 years of experience in print and digital media, scientific research, and multimedia science communication, she is passionate about spreading science literacy and social good. Follow Science Connected @scienceconn.
Earth Day Network. (n.d.). Earth Day 2020 FAQ. https://www.earthday.org/earth-day-2020/
Rotman, M. (n.d.). Cuyahoga River Fire. Cleveland Historical. https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/63
World History Project. (n.d.) What Happened in 1969. https://worldhistoryproject.org/1969