The origins of Earth Day can be traced to the 1960s. Several vocal activists were beginning to raise the public’s awareness about the problems of pollution and other environmental issues. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was amongst the most influential books related to the impending dilemmas that the planet was facing. In 1968, Morton Hilbert, along with the U.S. Public Health Service, hosted the Human Ecology Symposium. The focus of this symposium was the state of the environment, and the effects on human health that the environment can have. This symposium helped lay the groundwork for what would eventually become the first Earth Day.
Over the next two years, Hilbert, and many others worked to organize the first Earth Day, which took place in April of 1970. A similar celebration had also been organized earlier that year. On March 21, 1970, activist John McConnell helped organize a day to honor the Earth, and the concept of peace (this date was selected to coincide with the first day of spring). Eventually, these two different Earth Days would be unified into one holiday.
The name “Earth Day” had been suggested by many different people, and it seemed an obvious choice for the name of this new holiday, primarily because it rhymed with birthday. The date of April 22 was chosen because it was recognized that college students would be amongst the most active participants. April 22 would not fall during Spring Break, yet, would be before final exams. This date would also prevent conflicts with the Easter and Passover holidays. Additionally, April 22 was very close to the date of John Muir’s birthday (April 21). Muir was one of the most prominent conservationists of the late 1800s.
More than 2,000 colleges, and more than 10,000 public schools from across the nation participated in the first Earth Day. Some estimates claim that more than 20 million people took part in the festivities. More than a million people in New York City alone turned out for the demonstration. Originally, Earth Day was celebrated only once every ten years. By 1990, Earth Day had grown to a worldwide event, with more than 200 million people in 141 nations participating. After the success of the 1990 Earth Day, it was decided that Earth Day should be observed as a yearly event. Throughout the decade, the celebration of Earth Day helped bring a focus to environmental concerns such as the importance of recycling, climate change, and clean energy.
Traditions associated with the holiday include the ringing of bells, including the Japanese Peace Bell, which was donated by the United Nations by Japan. It has also become traditional to sing the “Earth Anthem”, written by Abhay Kumar. This anthem has been translated into eight different languages, including English, Russian, French, Spanish and Chinese. There are many other ways Earth Day can be celebrated. Groups might choose to clean up a neighborhood park, plant trees, or go without driving for a day.