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General Information About Earth Day

History of Earth Day

Rotating Earth Animation

Fifty one years ago an inspiring national movement to protect the environment crystallized.

Since America's first official Earth Day on April 22, 1970, New Jersey has become one of the leaders in recognizing environmental problems and developing creative solutions. The state was the third in the country to consolidate existing past programs into a unified major state agency to administer aggressive environmental and conservation efforts. Established by law on that initial Earth Day, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) immediately began managing natural resources and solving pollution problems. Ever since 1970, New Jersey has been a pioneer in environmental protection.

Since 1970, Earth Day has been celebrated annually on April 22nd in national and global proportions. It is promoted and supported at the state level by DEP, the New Jersey Commission on Environmental Education and Inter-agency Work Group, the Alliance for New Jersey Environmental Education, and a host of other environmental, educational, youth, and community-based organizations.

Earth Day is celebrated in a variety of ways by schools, communities, parks and nature centers, organizations, companies, businesses, municipalities, families, volunteers, youth groups, and individuals. This year, many communities will showcase events and school and youth programs and engage citizens in weekend community service efforts, all designed to inform the public about their natural world.

Earth Day efforts in New Jersey will explore a variety of important areas of focus in the state, including water conservation, climate change, watershed management, air and water quality, waste reduction, open space conservation and habitat protection. Local Earth Day programs, projects and events may highlight these topics, and explore local environmental priorities in addition to hosting community service initiatives, such as waterway, beach and park cleanups.

It is extremely important for New Jerseyans to realize that those who participate in the public and educational processes directed towards environmental improvement will help determine the quality of the environment for the next generation.

History of Earth Day

Rotating Earth Animation

Earth Day is celebrated annually on April 22nd. While the concept originated in the United States it is now recognized nationally as well as internationally.

Early stimulus for the public's Earth Day interests is often associated with the history of environmentalism in the United States. After the Great Depression and World War II, scientists and conservationists began to raise public interest and concern about such issues as air and water pollution, human population, development and conservation. In the late 1940s through 1960s, these well-known persons included Fairfield Osborne (founder of the Conservation Foundation and author of Our Plundered Planet), Aldo Leopold (former U.S. Forestry official and author of A Sand County Almanac), and later Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring) and Edward Abbey (author of Desert Solitaire.) For more details about environmental interests during this time period, visit the following web site:

The concept of Earth Day began in the spring of 1970. Exactly how and when it was conceived, as well as who was responsible for its origination, is still debated.

The most well-known version of Earth Day history features the efforts of Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) and Mr. Denis Hayes. In the early 1960s Senator Nelson persuaded President Kennedy to give national visibility to the natural environment by having the president go on a nationwide conservation tour. The president and three other senators began the tour in 1963. While it only went to three states and did not succeed in making the environment a national political issue, according to Senator Nelson, the tour was the beginning of an idea that later led to Earth Day.

Throughout the 1960s the country witnessed a slow erosion in the popularity of the word 'conservation' as the terms 'environmentalism' and 'ecology' gained public familiarity and understanding. The disillusioning effect of the Vietnam War and related chemical warfare tactics also served to enhance the popularity of Silent Spring. Public and political interests in the environment were mounting.

Although preoccupied with the Vietnam War and a recession-ridden economy, President Nixon took some stopgap action on the environmental front in 1969. In May, he set up a cabinet-level Environmental Quality Council as well as a Citizens' Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality. His critics charged that these were ceremonial bodies only, with no real power. Later in the year he appointed a White House committee to consider whether there should be a separate environmental agency.

Around the same time and in the midst of anti-war teach-ins being held on campuses across the country, Senator Nelson began to pursue the idea of having a nationwide teach-in on the environment. In 1969 he raised funds for the effort and sent letters to governors and mayors across the country to explain the event and to request that they issue Earth Day Proclamations. He also circulated articles to college newspapers and to education journals accessed by educators in grades K-12. He formally announced that this national environmental teach-in would be held in the spring of 1970.

It was also at this time that Congress sent President Nixon a remarkable bill known as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Senator Nelson later referred to NEPA as "the most important piece of environmental legislation in our history." This Act gave strong idealistic purpose to national environmental protection priorities and statutorily created a Council on Environmental Quality that would advise the president and review all federal environmental impact statements. President Nixon signed NEPA on New Year's Day, 1970.

According to Senator Nelson, passage of NEPA created an "explosion" of environmental interests nationwide. Authors of the first Council's annual report wrote: "Historians may one day call 1970 the year of the environment - a turning point, a year when the quality of life became more than a phrase…"

In January, 1970, Senator Nelson selected college student Denis Hayes to manage the Washington, D.C. Earth Day office and oversee the organizing of college campuses. Other college students were hired to work with Hayes. Soon, President Nixon announced an environmental action program that gave special emphasis to strengthening federal programs for dealing with water and air pollution.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took to streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy environment. Denis Hayes and his staff were able to coordinate massive coast-to-coast rallies and teach-ins. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Senator Nelson and Congressman Paul McCloskey (R-Calif.) gave bipartisan sponsorship to the event. This first Earth Day event led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency that same year, and stimulated passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts.

Earth Day was revived on a national level on its 20th anniversary in 1990 and gained the support of more than 200 million people from 141 countries. It attracted similar attention in 2000. In 1995 Senator Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom - the highest honor given to civilians in the United States - for his role as the founder of Earth Day.

To learn more about this version of Earth Day history, visit the following web sites:

Another perspective of Earth Day history belongs to John McConnell. McConnell is the founder of the first Earth Day celebration held on March 21, 1970. Initiated in San Francisco, its centerpiece was the March Equinox - the moment spring begins in the Northern Hemisphere. McConnell wrote the Earth Day Proclamation that was signed at this event.

He presented the concept of Earth Day at UNESCO's National Conference on Man and His Environment. It was well received. The Earth Day celebration concept was later sanctioned in a proclamation signed by United Nations Secretary General U Thant in 1971. The March Earth Day celebration has been featured each year since then in an Earth Day Ceremony at the UN Peace Bell. The ringing of the Peace Bell signals the moment spring begins. This is followed by two minutes of silent prayer or reflection - a time for people to join worldwide in heartfelt dedication to think about the earth. The March Equinox Earth Day ceremony has promoted conciliation and has been credited with spreading support for environmental action.

To learn more about this version of Earth Day history and how related activities conducted by the United Nations have transpired through the years, visit the following web site:

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has sponsored numerous Earth Day activities between the 1970s through the 1980s. Since 1988, the DEP has worked with New Jersey's governors to proclaim the last week in April, containing Earth Day and Arbor Day, as "New Jersey Environmental Education Week" or "Earth Week." Each year dozens of local Earth Day and Arbor Day events are sponsored by schools, community groups, municipalities and youth organizations statewide.

New Jersey witnessed a comprehensive celebration of Earth Day in 1990 with more than 100 events statewide. In fact, an estimated 40,000 participants attended an Earth Day celebration sponsored by DEP at Liberty State Park in Jersey City. In addition, a not-for-profit New Jersey Earth Day Office existed between 1989 through 1992 and provided ongoing momentum for statewide attention to Earth Day.

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