What is Earth Day and Why do we Celebrate it?

April 20, 2020
Reading Time: 5 mins

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This April marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, an annual event dedicated to raising public awareness about pollution, and finding ways to protect the environment.

This year’s Earth Day serves as a poignant reminder of the threats the planet faces. The effects of climate change are becoming harder and harder to ignore. As a result, it is now more important than ever before to stand by the values of Earth Day, and of the environmental movement.

Earth Day 2020 is expected to mobilise more than 1 billion people around the world. Tens of thousands of environmental rallies and community events are planned. These include the Great Global Cleanup, as well as a Citizen Science Initiative. The Earth Day Network is also planning to plant 7.8 billion trees  one tree for every person alive in 2020.

There is value in looking back at history. This is especially true of Earth Day. The success of Earth Day is proof that every person has a voice. It is proof that people working together have the power to make positive changes towards the future.

Earth Day started in the USA, but has continued to grow over the years. Now, more than 1 billion people across the globe participate in Earth Day activities.

Santa Barbara, California oil spill area

On 28 January 1969, Union Oil’s new drilling rig experienced a well blowout. The results were catastrophic. More than three million gallons of oil spewed into California’s Santa Barbara Channel. It killed over 10,000 seabirds, dolphins, seals, and sea lions.

This was a catalysing moment for the environmental movement.

Activists were inspired to fight for environmental regulation, and education. Among them was the then-Senator of Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson. He was inspired to create a national day for raising awareness about environmental issues. This was the beginning of Earth Day.“Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife, suddenly realised they shared common values.”

– A History of Earth Day by the Earth Day Network

The first Earth Day celebration was held on 20 April 1970. 20 million people across the United States gathered in public areas to talk about the environment, and to find ways to defend the planet. These included:
  • 2000 colleges and universities
  • 10,000 primary and secondary schools
  • Hundreds of communities across the United States

A popular anti-pollution poster created for the first Earth Day celebration. Designed by Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo, as well as animator of Disney’s Pinocchio and Dumbo.“Earth Day is the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year.”

– Denis Hayes, coordinator for the first Earth Day

In 1990, Earth Day became an international event. 200 million people in 141 countries participated in Earth Day activities. This brought environmental issues to the forefront of international discourse. Recycling efforts saw a huge boost worldwide. The event also helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro.

The Earth Day 20 International Peace Climb marked the first time in history that mountaineers from the United States, Soviet Union, and China, had roped together to climb a mountain. The group collected more than 2 tonnes of trash that had been left behind on Mt. Everest by previous expeditions.

US President George H. W. Bush shows his T-shirt honouring Earth Day 1990

A map of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol

In 1997, world leaders acknowledged the role that fossil fuel carbon emissions play in causing global warming. They agree that something must be done to address the rising emissions.

Green: Annex B parties with binding targets in the second period
Purple: Annex B parties with binding targets in the first period but not the second
Blue: non-Annex B parties without binding targets
Yellow: Annex B parties with binding targets in the first period but which withdrew from the Protocol
Orange: Signatories to the Protocol that have not ratified
Red: Other UN member states and observers that are not party to the Protocol

Earth Day 2000 focused on the dangers of global warming, and the need for clean energy. 5000 environmental groups from around the world used the internet to reach out to hundreds of millions of people in a record 184 countries.2007 saw one of the largest Earth Day celebrations to date. Many people participated in Earth Day activities from countries as diverse as the Ukraine, Venezuela, Tuvalu, the Philippines, Togo, Spain, and the U.K.

Australia becomes home to the first Earth Hour.

Sydney, Australia during Earth Hour. The top photo was taken before Earth Hour. The bottom was taken during Earth hour. In 2007, Sydney became home to the world’s first Earth Hour. (Photos courtesy Earth Hour)In 2010, the Earth Day Network launched a campaign to plant 1 billion trees. They were able to achieve this goal in 2012.

Children helping plant a tree on Earth Day 2010

On Earth Day 2016, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, asked world leaders to sign the Paris Climate Agreement. The landmark agreement provided a framework for reducing carbon emissions, and adapting to the impacts of climate change. The goal was to keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

It was signed by Australia, the United States, and some 120 other countries.

Adoption of the Paris Agreement

Everyone can make a difference on Earth Day, There are so many different ways to make an impact. Here are a few ideas you can use for your own Earth Day celebrations:
  • Commit Yourself to Service: Plant trees or flowers, clean up a stream or local park, help your local community garden.
  • Make Small Changes to Your Daily Routine: Read your labels, and demand transparency from the brands you buy.
  • Go for a Walk: Go outside and simply appreciate nature. And if you pass by a discarded bottle, recycle it even if it isn’t yours.
  • Advocate for an At-Risk Species: Spread the word about an at-risk species. A great way to do this is to make that species your mascot.
  • Take a Tech Break: Turn off the lights. Turn your printer off for a day. It may sound simple, but how many times have you left the lights on when you could be saving energy?
  • Go Vegetarian for a Day: It’s good for the environment, and your health!
  • Raise Awareness With Children: Have children create Earth Day-themed crafts and school projects.

As the effects of climate change become harder to ignore, it becomes more important than ever to stand on the side of the environmental movement. Each and every individual has the power to make a difference this Earth Day. We are all in this together.

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Photo credits: freepik.com


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