A Book, a Fire and a Teach-In: How Earth Day Came to be

April 19, 2017

In June of 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Yes, you read that correctly, the RIVER, a moving body of water, was so polluted it caught on fire. A TIME article published a month later brought the incident to the nation’s attention exclaiming that, “if you fall in, you don’t drown, you decay away.” It is interesting to note, that the 1969 fire was actually the 13th time the river caught on fire, and the image used on the magazine cover was actually from a much more serious fire on the river a decade earlier. Nevertheless, this became a catalyzing event for the environmental movement and, in addition to other events, led to the creation of Earth day on April 22, 1970.

Although the fire was an important moment, it was the publication of a book a few years earlier that brought environmental issues to the forefront of American thought. In 1962, Rachel Carson, already a well-known and respected scientist and author, published Silent Spring, which explored the links between the environment and public health. The book, which sold over 500,000 copies and was published in more than 20 countries, most famously led to a debate about pesticides commonly used in the agricultural industry and resulted in the outlawing of DDT. Silent Spring started a dialogue about a number of important environmental issues and became the inspiration for activists across the country. So when a fire started on the Cuyahoga River in 1969, parts of a movement were already in place to respond and push for more responsible environmental policies.

After nearly a decade of heightened social awareness and a string of widely publicized environmental disasters, Senator Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin-D) partnered with Congressman Pete McCloskey (California-R) and Harvard activist Denis Hayes to organize a national teach-in on the environment. On April 22, 1970, a date that fell nicely between spring break and finals on most college campuses, the first Earth Day was held. But participation extended well beyond college campuses. An estimated 20 million Americans joined in meetings, protests and other displays to draw attention to environmental concerns. This was remarkable in that it seemed to by-pass partisanship and included people of many diverse backgrounds. Within a few years, important legislation, such as the Clean Water Act, was passed and the Environmental Protection Agency was created with a mandate to safeguard and protect the environment. Earth Day also became an international day of protest and continues to be marked around the world.

This year, Earth Day activities are expected to draw more participants than in recent years. Along with other rallies, a March for Science will take place in Washington DC on the National Mall and in many other cities around the country. In many ways, this all began with a book by an incredible woman of science that fueled interest, a fire that caught national attention, and a teach-in that spread and ignited a movement. Happy Earth Day!

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