Over fifty years ago, dozens of environmentally focused causes gained united support and recognition in the United States, backed by bipartisan political agreement on one undeniable truth: Humans were on a path to doing unsustainable damage to Earth and its inhabitants (including ourselves). Pollution, deforestation, and overreliance on fossil fuels are all commonly known problems today, but in 1970, only the most dedicated groups were committed to bringing these issues to light for the rest of the world. But Senator Gaylord Nelson, inspired by the spirit of 1969 anti-war protests and simultaneously horrified by the impacts of an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in California, spearheaded the Earth Day project as its founder, organizing a coalition of politicians and student activists to engage the public and raise awareness about man-made threats to the environment.
The results of the inaugural Earth Day were undeniably successful and led to some landmark legislation, as well as the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Earth Day spawned the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act, passed in 1970. In particular, the Clean Air Act is regarded as the most important and enduring piece of legislation to come from the Earth Day movement, as it has been modified over time to enforce restrictions surrounding emissions, fuel standards, ozone protection, and more. Earthjustice reports that over its first 20 years, the Clean Air Act prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths and 18 million cases of respiratory illness in children.
Over the next several years after the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, lawmakers then passed the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and then the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. The impact of Earth Day was obvious. As the organization itself notes: “These laws have protected millions of men, women and children from disease and death and have protected hundreds of species from extinction.”
By the early 1990s, Earth Day gained traction with the United Nations and became a globally recognized event–and not a moment too soon. Senator Nelson, Earth Day’s founder, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, earning the highest possible honor there is for a U.S. civilian.