Happy Earth Day! Today is the day that many of us will contemplate our concerns over climate change, environmental destruction or dangers to our food supply, but do you know how this holiday first came to be? 42 years ago, the word “environment” was rarely used in daily conversation, until a picture in Time Magazine changed everything. Read on as we take a look back to the late 1960s to see why Earth Day started in the first place and how far society has come in caring for this planet we call home.

earth day, earth day history, cleveland, cuyahoga river, first earth day, gaylord nelson, republicans, smog, pollution, environmental destructionPhoto credit: Bettmann/CORBIS

In 1969, Americans were preoccupied with the divisive Vietnam War. But another battle was occurring on the home front, with rivers and lakes polluted, cities like Los Angeles blanketed in smog, and litter a common sight everywhere. Environmental destruction, however, was seen as a symptom of progress until people saw this picture in Time Magazine.

The photo referenced a fire that occured in June 1969 due to an oil slick on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. It was not the first time the river had burned, and Cleveland was in the midst of cleaning up the city. And the picture in Time was not even accurate–it was a photo from a 1952 fire. But the image caught the imagination of both the public and politicians.

Meanwhile Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson had witnessed the effects of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Nelson, a Democrat, decided a “national teach-in” about the environment was in order, and he asked Pete McCloskey, a northern California Republican, to serve as co-chair. Groups representing causes including oil spill prevention, air pollution, toxic dumps, wilderness destruction and endangered species began to realize they were all part of a greater movement.

The organization held the first Earth Day on April 20, 1970 drew the passion of 20 million Americans. The largest crowd was in New York City as Republican Mayor John Lindsey of New York permitted Fifth Avenue to be closed and allowed Central Park to host one million participants. CBS News with Walter Cronkite hosted a one hour Earth Day news special. A few years later, the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency became a reality under a Republican President, Richard Nixon.

After Earth Day 1970, the event continued to be held every 10 years, but Senator Nelson felt that in order for it to really make an impact, it should be more of an annual event. Working with Bruce Anderson, New Hampshire’s lead Earth Day organizer in 1990, Nelson formed Earth Day USA. From that point on, Earth Day became a holiday celebrated every year, a change that helped it gain much more momentum than in the past. In 1995, Earthday.org was formed to help educate and mobilize people and the power of the internet helped spur on the popularity and symbolism of the event even more.

Earth Day has since spread to 175 countries. We’re hoping that this year even more people will celebrate, volunteer and participate in Earth Day and every day, at a time when recognizing the critical condition of the Earth is more important than ever.

+ Earthday.org

Via Cleveland Historical Society, Congress.gov, Time

Photos courtesy Wikipedia (Diliff), Flickr (NASA)