Do You Know Who Had the Bright Idea for Earth Day?

Learn how Earth Day started, and the four people we can thank.

Today, you can get your recycling picked up at the curb, buy energy-efficient light bulbs, and bring reusable bags to the grocery store. That wasn’t the case 45 years ago, but the bright ideas of these four leaders in the environmental movement inspired first the nation, and later the world, to celebrate a holiday that would encourage the public to think about ways to better preserve the earth.


It all started with a book.

Rachel CarsonSeveral events occurred in the 1960s that led to the origin of the first Earth Day in 1970. In 1962, marine biologist and author Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, was published, alerting the public to environmental concerns. The book addressed the dangerous effects of pesticides, and promoted change to clean the earth’s air, land, and water.

Several years after the release of Carson’s book, two major environmental events occurred in the United States. In 1969, Santa Barbara, California experienced the largest oil spill of the time, which killed and injured thousands of birds and sea life and devastated the surrounding environment. That same year, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire from an oil slick. It was one fire among many that occurred from years of industrial waste flowing into the water.


Did you know a politician started Earth Day?

GaylordNelsonSenator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, was elected in 1962. Throughout the 1960s, Nelson witnessed the events that gradually brought sustainability into the public’s eye. Deeply affected, he worked to convince the government to take action. Nelson was also inspired by the anti Vietnam War protests going on at the time, and had the idea to hold an environmental demonstration. He announced the idea at a conference in Seattle, and the public was immediately on board. More and more people were becoming aware of pollutants, and looking for a way to help the environment.



The National Coordinator of the first Earth Day attended Stanford.

Denis_hayes_1980Nelson chose activist Denis Hayes to coordinate the implementation of the nation’s first Earth Day. Hayes served as student body president at Stanford University, and later attended Harvard. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Hayes had a love of nature, making him the ideal person to be Earth Day’s National Coordinator. The first Earth Day took place in 1970, as a day of education about environmental issues. More than 20 million people participated.



The Recycling logo was created by a student.

250px-Gary_anderson_and_recycling_logoIn 1970, the same year as the first Earth Day, Gary Anderson designed the recycling logo. A container company in Chicago, IL, held a design contest to increase environmental awareness. Contestants were asked to create a symbol that would represent recycled paper. At the time Anderson was a 23-year-old college student taking a class in graphic design. After working on the concept for just a day or two, Anderson had designed what has today become one of the most well-known logos in the nation.

In 1990, Earth Day went global; today, it is celebrated in nearly 200 countries, making it one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world. As we honor the 45th anniversary of Earth Day this week, it is a good time to reflect on the leaders that contributed to the origins of this impactful holiday.