2020 Earth Day Marks the 50th Anniversary

Katarina Samurović


On April 22, 2020, a big environmental jubilee is taking place – the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.  The annual event that has been taking place all around the world has a special importance today, not only because of the anniversary itself, but also because of the sensitive moment of its happening.

When was the First Earth Day?

The very first Earth Day happened in 1970. Staggering 20 million Americans (10% of the entire US population at the time), along with more than 2,000 colleges and universities and 10,000 public schools, went out to publicly demand environmental justice, to “demand a new way forward for our planet.” It was not only the largest environmental event but the largest civic event at the time. 

Consequently, Earth Day has led to the passage of the most important environmental laws in the US – the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.  Also, the political sentiment that Earth Day brought on helped in the forming of both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on October 3, 1970. This way, the government accepted the idea of official responsibility towards the nation’s natural resources. It is no wonder that that first Earth Day is credited with launching the modern environmental movement.

Why Was Earth Day Started?

Such a large-scale mobilization of people must have had some serious background. What exactly triggered the first Earth Day?  Well, 1969 was one exceptionally unfortunate year for the US environment.  On January 28Santa Barbara Oil Spill happened, leaking millions of gallons of oil off the well-known Californian coastline.  Just a few months later, on June 22, Cuyahoga River which flows into Lake Erie, literally caught fire when volatile mixture of oil, industrial chemicals, and other materials somehow ignited. 

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Fire on the Ohio's Cuyahoga River in 1952. Photo: Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University Library.
Fire on the Ohio’s Cuyahoga River in 1952. Photo: Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University Library..

But that wasn’t all. In the same year, it was revealed that the famous Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), the national symbol, was in steep decline due to the use of DDT – painfully echoing Rachel Carsons’s Silent Spring which had been published seven years earlier. This particular link showed that the events of 1969 were not an anomaly, but a consequence of environmental damage that had been accumulating for a long time. That sad year was only the culmination.

These and other similar incidents around the world, combined with higher scientific literacy and social awareness in the post-war society created a perfect storm for the beginning of a true grassroots environmental movement. Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. senator at the time and an ex-Governor of Wisconsin, organized a nationwide “teach-in” Inspired by the student anti-war movement. It became the first Earth Day.

Earth Day Today

Over the years, Earth Day evolved into the Earth Day Network – one of the world’s largest environmental stewardship motors. Earth Day Network “works with more than 75,000 partners in over 190 countries to drive positive action for our planet.” 

Unfortunately, half a century later, our planetary situation looks bleaker than back in the 70s. Although we have more awareness of the environmental and climate issues, the main problems remain largely unsolved. Denis Hayes, the organizer of the first Earth Day and Earth Day Network’s Board Chair Emeritus, has described the situation well in his official statement

Despite that amazing success and decades of environmental progress, we find ourselves facing an even more dire, almost existential, set of global environmental challenges, from loss of biodiversity to climate change to plastic pollution, that call for action at all levels of government.” 

However, the Earth Day Network is not losing its stamina. “We find ourselves today in a world facing global threats that demand a unified global response,” said the Earth Day Network president Kathleen Rogers. “For Earth Day 2020, we will build a new generation of environmentalist activists, engaging millions of people worldwide.”

Young environmental movements such as Fridays For Future prove that the new generation of environmental activists has indeed matured and that it has even higher aspirations. It is only logical that it is so – with rampant climate change and its consequences unfolding before our eyes, it is hard to deny that there is more at stake than 50 years ago.

How to Celebrate Earth Day from Home

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 crisis, millions of people will not be able to gather live to honor 50th Earth Day. Instead, at least five campaigns will take place during Earth Day Week, with the overall goal of engaging one billion people without massive gatherings. 

Additionally, the largest-ever online environmental conference with over 100 speakers, organized by an environmental social network We Don’t Have Time and lead partners Exponential Roadmap and Earth Day Network, will be streamed from April 20-25.

NASA is hosting #EarthDayAtHome with their  Earth Day 50th Anniversary Toolkit. 


Earth Day Official

Earth Day 2020

Earth Day 50th Anniversary https://www.earthday.org/earth-day-50th-anniversary/

The History Of Earth Day

World’s Largest Online Climate Conference Announced To Mark 50th Anniversary Of World’s First Earth Day, Earth Day Press Release, April 14, 2020:


45 Years after the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, Looking at a Historic Disaster Through Technology. NOAA. January 28, 2014: https://response.restoration.noaa.gov/about/media/45-years-after-santa-barbara-oil-spill-looking-historic-disaster-through-technology.html

When Our Rivers Caught Fire. Michigan Environmental Council. July 11, 2011: https://www.environmentalcouncil.org/when_our_rivers_caught_fire

When Was the First Earth Day? NOAA: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/earth-day.html


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About the author
Katarina Samurović
Katarina Samurović is an environmental analyst and a freelance science writer. She has a special interest in biodiversity, ecoclimatology, biogeography, trees, and insects.