The modern environmental movement was born 42 years ago on the very first Earth Day in 1970. But did you know there were two official Earth Days that first year and some confusion over the next decade as to when to celebrate the day?
Although April 22 is the officially celebrated day nationwide, peace activist John McConnell established the first governmentally-recognized observance of Earth Day one month before—on March 21, 1970 as Mayor Joseph Alioto signed McConnell’s Earth Day Proclamation in San Francisco.
The year before, McConnell had introduced the idea of a global holiday called Earth Day at the UNESCO Conference on the Environment. He proposed that Spring Equinox be set aside each year as a day to foster unity and inspire appreciation for the planet we live on.
Around the same time, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin hoped to get environmental protection legislation onto the national political agenda by combining emerging public awareness around pollution issues with the spirit of the student anti-war protest movement of the times.
He announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media and hired Denis Hayes as national coordinator. With the help of staff, Hayes launched a campaign of localized actions across America.
As a result of this coordinated effort, millions of Americans from all walks of life took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies on April 22, 1970. This mandate of the people led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.
Senator Nelson attributed the success of that first Earth Day to the grassroots structure of the campaign where each community was encouraged to design and carry out its own action around local concerns. In the meantime, McConnell had become well known at the UN as “someone courageous with ideas, a diplomat for the Earth," according to Under-Secretary-General Robert Miller.
Having two different Earth Days with two different founders caused some governmental confusion through the 1970s. President Nixon proclaimed Earth Day to be on April 22 in 1971 while the U.S. Congress adopted the resolution for it to be on March 21 of that same year.
President Ford proclaimed March 21 while Presidents Carter and H.W. Bush proclaimed April 22. There was even an Earth Week thrown into the mix by Congress in 1973—right in between the two dates. Commemoration-signing mayors and governors across the nation pleaded for consistency in the official observation of the day to smooth out confusion with their local agencies. Eventually Senator Nelson’s plan won out and Earth Day settled onto the date we embrace today.