Earth Day: From 1970 Outcry to Today’s Eco Wins

On the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, a whopping 20 million Americans hit the streets with a passion that was impossible to ignore.

April 22, 2024

Introduction

Every April 22nd, Earth Day turns a global spotlight on the environmental challenges we face, inspiring action from an estimated billion participants worldwide. That’s about 15% of the global population stepping up annually, making Earth Day the largest secular event on the planet. Born out of the smoggy chaos of the 1970s when eco-awareness was more of an afterthought, it sparked a revolution in how we treat our planet. 

Let’s rewind and dive into how this day got its start and check out the significant wins we’ve racked up along the way.

“There’s a lot more to be done.” 

That was the clear message from Senator Gaylord Nelson after witnessing the ravages of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969. Stirred by the energy of the student anti-war protests and escalating concerns about pollution, Nelson saw an opportunity to harness that activism for the environment. Together with Congressman Pete McCloskey, they launched the first Earth Day.

On April 22, 1970, a whopping 20 million Americans hit the streets with a passion that was impossible to ignore. They were fed up with smog that choked their cities and pollutants that spoiled their waters. From coast to coast, people from all walks of life rallied for a single cause — the Earth.

Imagine New York City’s Fifth Avenue completely car-free, a river of people instead of traffic, activists and everyday folks alike, sharing a powerful message. Over in Washington D.C., the scene was set with folk songs and fiery speeches at the Washington Monument, all echoing the urgent call for change. Demonstrators wielded signs, gave out flowers, and even carried nets filled with dead fish to drive their point home: “This could be you!“. They weren’t just protesting; they were educating, inspiring, and demanding a new way forward with every chant and cheer. This monumental day was about turning eco-awareness from a fringe issue to a mainstream crusade, showing just how powerful our voices can be when we come together.

Little did the demonstrators of 1970 know, their passionate calls for change would ripple across decades, giving rise to some of the most significant environmental victories our planet has seen.

Here are The Top 10 Eco Wins That Have Been Fueled by the Earth Day Movement

  1. Creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970): Just months after the first Earth Day, the U.S. government established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), marking a major national commitment to environmental protection. Their enforcement was in large part responsible for the pollution standards index improving by half in major cities in the 1980s. 
  2. Clean Air Act (1970): In the same year, the Clean Air Act was expanded to establish comprehensive federal and state regulations to limit emissions from both stationary (industrial) sources and mobile sources. Air Quality Life Index [AQLI] reports that ‘Reductions in particulate air pollution alone, thanks in large part to the Clean Air Act, have added 1.4 years to the life expectancy of the average American since 1970.’ 
  3. Clean Water Act (1972): This pivotal legislation set the structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States, ensuring the integrity of surface waters. In fact, PBS reports that 700 billion pounds of pollution have been diverted from America’s rivers and streams, now more than double meet clean water goals. 
  4. Endangered Species Act (1973): This act recognized the critical need for preserving endangered and threatened species, offering protection not seen prior to Earth Day’s awareness-raising efforts. Thanks to this vital act, we can still marvel at species like the bald eagle, Kirtland’s warbler, American alligator, whooping crane, and peregrine falcon. Once on the brink, they’re now thriving, showcasing the power of dedicated conservation efforts. 
  5. Establishment of Green Ribbon Schools Program (2011): Earth Day’s focus on education bore fruit with the creation of the Green Ribbon Schools Program, recognizing schools that reduce environmental impact and costs, improve health, and teach effective environmental education.
  6. Passage of Proposition 39 in California (2012): This initiative generated about $1 billion over five years for energy efficiency projects in schools, particularly benefiting those in low-income areas.
  7. MobilizeU (2012): This initiative began to engage colleges and universities worldwide in sustainability, reflecting Earth Day’s expanding influence on educational institutions.
  8. Climate Literacy Campaign Launch (2020): The minds behind Earth Day recognized that ‘Over 3 billion students lack environmental education’. Aimed at making climate education a core feature of school curricula worldwide, this campaign demonstrated Earth Day’s ongoing impact on global environmental education and can now successfully state that ‘Over 95% of primary and secondary schools in the US and millions of schools globally observe Earth Day each year.’ 
  9. Expansion of Green Schools (Ongoing): Earth Day’s legacy has continued to promote green school initiatives across the U.S. and globally, transforming educational environments for better ecological understanding and responsibility.
  10. Signing of the Paris Climate Agreement (2016): Earth Day was chosen as the day to sign the historic Paris Climate Agreement in 2016, aimed at combatting climate change and accelerating the transition to a sustainable, low-carbon future. While public opinion varies, the impact is clear: prior to the agreement, projections by the Climate Action Tracker indicated global emissions would raise temperatures by 3.5°C by 2100. Thanks to the measures outlined in the agreement, that trajectory has now flattened to an increase of 2.9°C.

Earth Day 2024

The fire that sparked Earth Day in 1970 isn’t just a flicker in history—it’s a blaze that keeps growing. Every shout and step taken by those original eco-warriors carved a path we’re still charging down today. Sure, it took over half a century, but the ripple effects are colossal and still expanding.

So, what can you do? Keep that rally cry loud & dive into this year’s Earth Day events or find new ways to contribute year-round. Your actions matter—big or small. Check out Earth Day Events Map to see how you can join the global movement. 

In our minds, every day is Earth Day—Join the movement with the Karma Wallet Card and make every purchase power a brighter, cleaner earth. Sign up for the waitlist today!