50 Years of Earth Day in America

By Gwen Vanderhage, MLIS

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, celebrated on April 22 each year to draw public attention to the issue of climate change. Over the years, Earth Day has become a day to mobilize volunteers for climate projects and to encourage individuals to make small changes to help the earth.

In the late 1960s, lack of regulations was pushing the American environment to a breaking point. In 1969, an explosion and massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, resulted in wider public engagement around the idea of cleaning up the climate. Democratic Senator Gaylor Nelson of Wisconsin wanted to mobilize the energy of the anti-Vietnam War movement towards environmental issues. He recruited Republican Congressman Pete McCluskey of California and Harvard graduate student Denis Hayes to bring together previously disparate groups for a national day of learning about the environment: Earth Day.

Their idea caught fire. On the first Earth Day in 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums in massive rallies to advocate for a healthy, sustainable environment. Earth Day brought together groups that had been fighting against toxic waste, air pollution, pesticides, and loss of wildlife habitat. It united advocates from across political parties and different walks of life. It brought together union organizers, captains of industry, and teachers. The result of this first Earth Day was the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Now, 50 years later, the climate movement is worldwide. Industry leaders from Patagonia, Nestle, and Tesla join young people like Greta Thunberg and countless others around the world who are leading school walk-outs for climate change and petitioning courts (see Juliana v. United States) for additional climate action. These days, climate stories make the news on a daily basis. We hear about plastic particulates in the oceans, bush fires in Australia, and the shrinking ice pack for polar bears. In America, where the Earth Day movement began, climate action is still a controversial topic. Even so, librarians around the country are making plans for the anniversary.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the American Library Association has partnered with Space Science Institute’s Center for Interactive Learning to create programs for libraries that engage patrons as citizen scientists. This initiative is called STAR*Net. More than 600 libraries are registered to serve as centers of space science learning in April 2020. Patrons of all ages can get involved with observing and collecting data to help NASA with accuracy and tracking at the micro level. NASA’s GLOBE program is enlisting citizens in collecting data for projects about mosquitoes, clouds, trees, and land cover. Getting involved is as simple as downloading an app.

Every year in my community, families go out to clean up streams and restore creek beds by cutting out reeds, picking up litter, and planting saplings. What will you do to clean up your corner of the earth this year?

Click here for a list of important Earth Day titles for your library.