National Geographic Daily News
Aflac employee-led Green Committee regularly sponsors events that increase sensitivity to the environment.  On Earth Day last year, Aflac dumped a truck load of office trash onto the parking lot of the Georgia-based company's headquarters.

Aflac employees pick through garbage bags in search of recyclable plastic, aluminum, and cardboard for Earth Day 2013.

PHOTOGRAPH BY AFLAC VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

John Roach

for National Geographic

Published April 21, 2014

More than a billion people around the world will celebrate Earth Day on April 22, 2014—the 44th anniversary of the annual day of action.

Earth Day began in 1970, when 20 million people across the United States—that's one in ten—rallied for increased protection of the environment.

"It was really an eye-opening experience for me," Gina McCarthy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, who was a self-described self-centered teenager during the first Earth Day rallies, told National Geographic. (See pictures: "The First Earth Day—Bell-Bottoms and Gas Masks.")

"Not only were people trying to influence decisions on the Vietnam War," she recalled, "but they were beginning to really focus attention on issues like air pollution, the contamination they were seeing in the land, and the need for federal action."

At the time, she said, the environment was in visible ruins—factories legally spewed black clouds of pollutants into the air and dumped toxic waste into streams. (Learn more about air pollution.)

"I can remember the picture of the Cuyahoga River being on fire," she said, referring to the Ohio waterway choked with debris, oil, sludge, industrial wastes, and sewage that spectacularly erupted in flames on June 22, 1969, and caught the nation's attention.

Although members of the public were increasingly incensed at the lack of legal and regulatory mechanisms to thwart environmental pollution, green issues were absent from the U.S. political agenda.

First Earth Day "Took Off Like Gangbusters"

The environment's low profile frustrated U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, whose campaigns to protect it during the 1960s had fallen flat.

In 1969 Nelson hit on the idea of an environmental protest modeled after anti-Vietnam War teach-ins.

"It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country," Nelson recounted in an essay shortly before he died in July 2005 at 89. "The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air—and they did so with spectacular exuberance." (Related: "Earth Day Pictures: 20 Stunning Shots of Earth From Space.")

Nelson recruited activist Denis Hayes to organize the April 22, 1970, teach-in, which today is sometimes credited with launching the modern environmental movement.

By the end of 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had been established, and efforts to improve air and water quality were gaining political traction.

"It was truly amazing what happened," Kathleen Rogers, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Earth Day Network, told National Geographic News in 2009. "Blocks just tumbled."

A photo of first graders with the University of Memphis Campus School planting watermelon seeds for Earth Day 2014.
First graders at the University of Memphis Campus School in Tennessee planted watermelon seeds to celebrate Earth Day.
PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM DeSHAZER/THE COMMERICAL APPEAL/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Earth Day Evolves

Since the first Earth Day, environmentalism has moved from a fringe issue to a mainstream concern, Amy Cassara told National Geographic News in 2010, when she was a senior associate at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C.

"As many as 80 percent of Americans describe themselves as environmentalists," Cassara said.

Environmental problems today, however, are less immediate than dirty air, toxic water, and a hole in the ozone layer, she said. For example, the effects of global climate change are largely abstract and difficult to explain "without coming off as a doomsday prognosticator." (See pictures of Earth Day stunts.)

"As we become more industrialized and our supply chains become less transparent," she added, "it can be more difficult to understand the environmental consequences of our actions."

McCarthy is in a new battle to protect Americans from modern environmental threats such as global climate change, which she called "one of the most significant, if not the most significant, public health issue of our time." (See a map of global warming effects.)

As EPA chief, she is charged with implementing large portions of President Barack Obama's controversial climate action plan, such as carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants, which the agency says will help protect millions of Americans from the dangers of a warming planet.

Grassroots Power

People in the modern-day environmental movement, McCarthy noted, should remember the power of the grassroots activism that spurred the first Earth Day in 1970.

"It wasn't so much about demanding national action," she said. "It was about demanding that individuals get engaged, [and] that would then push national action." (See your pictures of Earth.)

McCarthy is especially keen to hear more voices from minority and low-income communities, which are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards. "This is an issue where we need everybody to speak up," she said.

Though huge problems remain, McCarthy noted, the impact of that first Earth Day has been profound. Since then, the nation's air and water have become dramatically cleaner, and lead has disappeared from gasoline—while the economy has more than doubled in size.

"Really, it all began with Earth Day," she said, "and the ability to have a grassroots movement that demanded that we keep people safe while we continue to grow the economy."

45 comments
Aprill Meadows
Aprill Meadows

I love Earth Day, this year I participated in lights out! I enjoyed it completely. Candles are so much better.

ANIL MANGOOL
ANIL MANGOOL

PROPER WASTE MANAGEMENT AT THE GRASSROOTS LEVEL IS THE SIMPLEST AND MOST EFFECTIVE WAY TO PREVENT POLLUTION,SAFEGUARD THE EARTH'S ENVIORNMENT AND MAKE HEAVEN ON EARTH.

Udeny Dayarathna
Udeny Dayarathna

"Thank you" to all pioneers of Earth Day ! Let's continue, and try to do our best to restore our planet !

Lauri Loveland
Lauri Loveland

I learned today that Australia does not support Earth Day. Flabbergasted!

Cameron Allen-Kyser
Cameron Allen-Kyser

Happy Earth Day! We took the kids to clean a park, something we plan to do more often... it should not be just an annual event!

Sam Held
Sam Held

Earth Day. What a joke we have played on Mother Nature.

Michael Rudnin
Michael Rudnin

"As many as 80 percent of Americans describe themselves as environmentalists" ... that's really optimistic, as I recently read a survey that said nearly 40% don't believe in climate change or think that global warming is a hoax, and as environmental issues go, that one's top of the list, followed directly behind migrating from fossil fuels to renewable energy for our baseload power needs.

Linda Haynie
Linda Haynie

Perhaps if everyone in Congress had a mandatory camping trip alone to the mountains before they took office, they would remember the beauty and fragility of the earth when they make decisions affecting our planet.  One can only hope.

jack thompson
jack thompson

People still burn plastic in Southeast Asia and Mexico. Earth day goes unnoticed in a huge part of the world. Not denying that the USA over consumes and pollutes in quantities that dwarf other countries.

Elaine Cressman
Elaine Cressman

I'm sure allis done with good intentions. But here's what our President has to say. Now the Obama Administration's methane reduction strategy released in March is raising concern among U.S. senators that the agency is moving forward with regulating methane emissions from cattle through the creation of a so-called "Biogas Roadmap," a joint effort between USDA, EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy set for release in June.

pamela letstalkaboutcorsica
pamela letstalkaboutcorsica

80% of Americans see themselves as environmentalists ? in theory, that alone, should carry its weight for advancement in initiatives and settlements for the continent to take/signing of the necessay decisions before it's too late. Live in hope.

Happy Earth Day all over the world !

Jo-Anne Sutherland
Jo-Anne Sutherland

We come from the Earth and to the Earth we will return. Let us all nurture Mother Earth the way she nurtures us. I love you Mother Earth <3

mazin asaqaf
mazin asaqaf

Hope more govermental actions to save earth

.................

Donna Walker
Donna Walker

I will be dog walking with an extra bag today to pick up rubbish but I am sure it will used up by the time I get to the cemetary gates with the dog...

Anya Bodykova
Anya Bodykova

Please don't litter today! 

Categorical imperative in action. Happy Earth Day! :) 

Armando Vega
Armando Vega

On this day do whatever you can to reduce your carbon footprint, it's environmentally friendly and good for our planet. Recycle, carpool, and find out more let's help preserve mother earth. Happy Earth Day everybody!

Rosemary Herrmann Todd
Rosemary Herrmann Todd

I remember when this started & sure hoped it would catch on & continue! :) I'm so glad it did!  

Amy Cosner
Amy Cosner

Happy Earth Day!  I've got my recyclables out like I do every Tuesday!

Catherine Kylie
Catherine Kylie

Can someone please share me information about earth day? thanx

Sagar Roy
Sagar Roy

Protecting earth starts from the little savings that we can do daily.

It doesn't have to be a biiiiiiig affair every time.

As little as saving wastage of water, turning the electrical equipments off when not in use, turning off the PCs in office when you are not using using for a long time(a vacation or weekend for example), keeping the geyser off after you have taken bath, etc.
So much can be done by doing so little by everybody.

This is our earth .... The Big Blue Ball ... :)


Sagar Roy
Sagar Roy

this is one of the few initiatives actually launched to others, reforestation is a great proof: When a tree is planted we know we will surely there when it begins to be profitable "oxygen and shade or fruit" improve the environment, protect animals is more practical because you immediately see the benefits, wish all those who try to do justice to our unique residence to succeed and especially to resist the enemy number one life on earth indifference.

ZEINEB MESSAOUDI
ZEINEB MESSAOUDI

c'est l'une des rares initiatives réellement lancées pour autrui, le reboisement est une grande preuve: quand on plante un arbre on sait qu'on ne sera surement plus là quand il commencera à être rentable " oxygène, ombre et ou fruit" assainir l'environnement, protéger les animaux c'est plus concret car on voit tout de suite ses avantages, souhaitons à tous ceux qui tentent de rendre justice à notre unique lieu de résidence de réussir et surtout de résister à l'ennemi numéro un de la vie sur terre : l'indifférence .     

Malcolm Wilson
Malcolm Wilson

My first Earth Day was in Mesa,AZ 1990. Hello Best Western Mezona!

Lorretta Rollinson
Lorretta Rollinson

34 years ago , some people started talking .........glad this is not a real and present danger to society,

Bijaya Moharana
Bijaya Moharana

Every Individual Should contribute a little bit  not to damage the Environment.

Virginia Tamuts
Virginia Tamuts

It is encouraging to see that the 44 years of the environmental movement  resulted in outlawing wastes being dumped  into our air and water, and yet  anyone viewing the map of the problems we still face (see: global warming effects) understands the importance of diligently working for a cleaner future for our childrens'  sake. 

Lorretta Rollinson
Lorretta Rollinson

oops , it was 44 years ago , such a short time to expect the USA to have signed up to all the International Agreements that existed before this year ..Kyoto , Copenhagen ,

Share

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

See more innovators »

Latest News Video

See more videos »

See Us on Google Glass

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »