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The First Earth Day Remembered

The first Earth Day in 1970 mobilized millions of Americans to protect the planet. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans, or 10% of the US population at that time took to the streets, college campuses, and hundreds of cities to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward for the planet. The First Earth Day essentially launched the modern environmental movement.

But how did it start?

On January 28, 1969, a well, drilled by Union Oil off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, blew out. More than three million gallons of oil spewed, killing over 10,000 seabirds, dolphins, seals, and sea lions. As a reaction to the disaster, activists were mobilized to create environmental regulation and environmental education.

At a United Nations Conference in San Francisco that same year, peace activist John McConnell proposed a day to honor the Earth and the concept of peace, to first be celebrated on March 21, 1970, the first day of spring. This day was later sanctioned in a proclamation written by McConnell and signed by Secretary General U Thant at the UN. A month later, Senator Gaylord Nelson, from Wisconsin, inspired by the student protests, and having seen the soil spill in California from an airplane, created April 22 as Earth Day because he believed that day would maximize the number of students that could be reached on university campuses. President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon planted a tree on the White House South Lawn to recognize that first day.

Nelson was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his work.

Today, Earth Day is an annual event celebrated around the world on April 22 to demonstrate support for environmental protection and through the Earth Day Network 193 countries collaborate globally.

Many cities, the Quad Cities included, celebrate Earth Week, an entire week of activities focused on the environment. That will take place in our region in 2023 and will be outlined in our next RiverWay story. However, another way to observe is to make every day Earth Day!