Why We Earth Day: Then. Now. Future.

Earth Day is an annual celebration that honors the achievements of the environmental movement and raises awareness of the need to protect Earths natural resources for future generations. Earth Day is celebrated on April 22 in the United States and on either April 22 or the day the spring equinox occurs throughout the rest of the world.

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Earth Day is an annual celebration that honors the achievements of the environmental movement and raises awareness of the need to protect Earths natural resources for future generations. The first Earth Day was held April 22, 1970. Here, Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) author of the 1970 Clean Air Act, addresses an estimated 40,000-60,000 people as keynote speaker for the first Earth Day celebrations in Philadelphia. Photograph by Peter54321, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0
Earth Day is an annual celebration that honors the achievements of the environmental movement and raises awareness of the need to protect Earths natural resources for future generations. The first Earth Day was held April 22, 1970. Here, Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) author of the 1970 Clean Air Act, addresses an estimated 40,000-60,000 people as keynote speaker for the first Earth Day celebrations in Philadelphia. Photograph by Peter54321, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0

Environmental activism during the 1960s inspired Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson to create a national celebration uniting the environmental movement. With the help of Denis Hayes, a graduate student at Harvard University, Nelson organized the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, educating participants in the importance of environmental conservation. Attended by 20 million people across the United States, the event strengthened support for legislation such as the Clean Air Act (updated in 1970) and the Endangered Species Act (1973).

In 1990, Hayes organized a global Earth Day, with more than 200 million participants in more than 140 countries. Earth Day now brings together citizens and activists from around the world to raise awareness and take action regarding such environmental concerns as global warming and renewable energy.

Today, the Earth Day Network (EDN), which brings together more than 20,000 partners and organizations in 190 countries, supports the Earth Day mission year-round. This mission is founded on the premise that all people, regardless of race, gender, income, or geography, have a moral right to a healthy, sustainable environment. The Earth Day Network pursues this mission through education, public policy, and activism campaigns. These campaigns bring together more than 1 billion participants every year, making it one of the largest public, secular events in the world.

 

The Earth Day Network pursues a set of core goals:

  • Broaden the meaning of environment to include issues such as climate change, green schools and environmental curricula, green jobs, and renewable energy;
  • Diversify the movement by providing civic engagement opportunities at the local, state, national and global levels around the world. Recognizing that climate change impacts our most vulnerable citizens first and most severely, EDN often works with low-income communities to bring their voices and issues into the movement.
  • Mobilize communities by working with partner organizations to provide opportunities for all citizens to become active in the environmental movement.
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Earth Days Core Issues

This set of goals underlines Earth Day events and actions around the world, which can be organized into ten core issues.

ADVOCACY: Supporters encourage individuals and organizations to meet with elected officials to discuss environmental issues. The online program “Million Acts of Green,” for instance, encourages visitors to adopt lifestyle changes such as composting, reducing your carbon footprint, or recycling e-waste.

Nine key issues help support the Earth Day mission year-round. Advocacy: Supporters encourage individuals and organizations to meet with elected officials to discuss environmental issues. Here, legendary primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall meets with conservationist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore. Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic
Nine key issues help support the Earth Day mission year-round. Advocacy: Supporters encourage individuals and organizations to meet with elected officials to discuss environmental issues. Here, legendary primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall meets with conservationist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore. Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic

CLIMATE CHANGE: Supporters raise awareness about climate change, human contribution to those changes, and opportunities to slow the phenomenon. Many Earth Day supporters, for instance, encourage citizens to support the landmark Paris Climate agreement, set to be signed on Earth Day 2016.

Climate change: Supporters raise awareness about climate change, human contribution to those changes, and opportunities to slow the phenomenon. Coral bleaching, seen here in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area near the island nation of Kiribati, is a dramatic illustration of our warming climate. Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic
Climate change: Supporters raise awareness about climate change, human contribution to those changes, and opportunities to slow the phenomenon. Coral bleaching, seen here in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area near the island nation of Kiribati, is a dramatic illustration of our warming climate. Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic

CONSERVATION & BIOLOGY: Supporters work to conserve the world’s biodiversity. On Earth Day 2010, for instance, participants in Sri Lanka planted more than 100 medicinal plants throughout the tropical rain forest at Yagirala Forest Reserve. These plants can be used by local populations and will create habitats for different organisms, enhancing the biodiversity of the island nation.

Conservation: Supporters work to conserve the worlds biodiversity. High-tech devices such as Nat Geo's Crittercam help provide insight into the lives of animals, such as lions, that conservationists and scientists may not otherwise observe. Photo by Greg Marshall, National Geographic.
Conservation: Supporters work to conserve the worlds biodiversity. High-tech devices such as Nat Geo’s Crittercam help provide insight into the lives of animals, such as lions, that conservationists and scientists may not otherwise observe. Photograph by Greg Marshall, National Geographic. 

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EDUCATION: Earth Day education programs provide educators, students, and the general public with resources and solutions to create a healthier, more sustainable planet. On Earth Day 2010, for instance, teachers and students in the Compostela Valley region of the Philippines participated in a day-long conference. At the conference, they learned about tree planting and care, participated in nature hikes, and presented their environmental action projects to the community.

Education: Programs provide educators, students, and the general public with resources and solutions to create a healthier, more sustainable planet. Try this activity to get started!
Education: Programs provide educators, students, and the general public with resources and solutions to create a healthier, more sustainable planet. Try this activity to get started!

ENERGY: Advocates support projects that develop renewable energy sources and technologies as means of transitioning off of nonrenewable sources, such as coal and oil. Citizens of Qatar, for example, are invited to switch off their power for one hour on Earth Day in a symbolic stance against human contributions to global warming.

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Energy: Advocates support projects that develop renewable energy sources and technologies, such as this wind farm in Texas. Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic
Energy: Advocates support projects that develop renewable energy sources and technologies, such as this wind farm in Texas.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

FOOD & AGRICULTURE: Supporters raise awareness about some farming practices, such as the use of chemical pesticides, which contribute to environmental degradation. Supporters also advocate for a greater support of organic, local, and sustainable agricultural techniques. Member organizations of this issue group include Articultores, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which raises awareness about urban gardening and brings citizens and youth together to plant in abandoned sites in cities.

Food and agriculture: Supporters raise awareness about fishing and farming practices that contribute to environmental degradation. Photograph by Gerick Bergsma courtesy Marine Photobank
Food and agriculture: Supporters raise awareness about fishing and farming practices that contribute to environmental degradation. Photograph by Gerick Bergsma courtesy Marine Photobank

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GREEN ECONOMY: Supporters advocate for the creation of green industries and jobs that are connected to renewable energy sources. For example, the Students in Free Enterprise group in Saskatchewan, Canada, sponsors a prize for student projects that make best use of recycled materials.

Green economy and green schools. Programs include a focus on healthy school lunches, environmental classroom activities, outreach to local and national leaders, and an emphasis on sustainable building techniques. Photograph by Steve Credo, courtesy St. Philip's Academy
Green economy and green schools. Programs include a focus on healthy school lunches, environmental classroom activities, outreach to local and national leaders, and an emphasis on sustainable building techniques. Photograph by Steve Credo, courtesy St. Philip’s Academy

GREEN SCHOOLS: The Earth Day Network sponsors the National GREEN Schools Campaign. The GREEN Schools Campaign includes a focus on healthy school lunches, environmental classroom activities, outreach to local and national leaders, and an emphasis on sustainable building techniques.

RECYCLING & WASTE REDUCTION: Supporters work to reduce the amount of waste that people produce, and increase the amount that we recycle and reuse. The Beach Bunch group of Brunei, for example, organizes beach-cleaning campaigns.

Recycling: Supporters work to reduce the amount of waste that people produce, and increase the amount that we recycle and reuse. Photograph by Ali Gohar, My Shot
Recycling: Supporters work to reduce the amount of waste that people produce, and increase the amount that we recycle and reuse. Photograph by Ali Gohar, My Shot

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: Supporters promote environmental practices that respect biodiversity and the natural world. Costa Rica, for instance, has implemented the Viaje Limpio program, in which individuals and companies pay a fee for the greenhouse gases they produce through travel. This money goes to protect the rain forest, water resources, and biodiversity of Costa Rica. Viaje Limpio helps the Costa Rican economy, because biodiversity and the rain forest are important natural assets that bring thousands of tourists to the country every year.

Sustainable development. Supporters promote environmental practices that respect biodiversity and the natural world. This lodge in Costa Rica, for example, is also a national wildlife refuge. Photograph courtesy Ecoturismo Hacienda Baru JE Sociedad Anonima
Sustainable development. Supporters promote environmental practices that respect biodiversity and the natural world. This lodge in Costa Rica, for example, is also a national wildlife refuge. Photograph courtesy Ecoturismo Hacienda Baru JE Sociedad Anonima

In only 40 years, Earth Day has evolved from a single day celebrating the environmental movement in the United States to a global network that empowers more than a billion people to better understand, protect, and improve the environment.

 

This feature originally appeared in National Geographic.

 
 



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