How Earth Day Went Global, and How We Can Use it To Save Our Earth

Earth Day 2024 highlights need for plastic solutions

© Earth

On April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans banded together to emphatically tell their government the time had come to prioritize the environment. This one day was the culmination of weeks of impassioned work by the Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, and graduate-student Denis Hayes, who Nelson had turned to for help in making it happen. Both of them were inspired to act after witnessing a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara in California. They chose April 22, as it sat comfortably between Spring Break and final after exams, giving them the best opportunity to see students support their efforts. 

The impact from the first Earth Day reverberated through the country and reached the doors of the nation’s highest powers both at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Only a few months later in July of the same year, the Environmental Protection Agency was established to regulate pollution in the nation.  In 1970, the existing Clean Air Act was updated to include much stronger regulation of ambient air quality and significantly strengthened federal enforcement authority. Two years later, the Clean Water Act was passed, helping to usher in a new era of environmental legislation.

Gradually, Earth Day coalesced into a movement with a few variations along the way, such as when Canada held its first Earth Day on Sept. 11. Yet by 1980, Earth Day was being marked in Washington. D.C. across from the White House. This location was highly appropriate since by then it had helped usher in a whole raft of additional US environmental legislation, including the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Superfund, Toxics Substances Control Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

In 1990, Hayes helped to organize the first global Earth Day with over 140 countries and 200 million people participating in a series of ways. Though these seeds of change may have sprung up in different areas of the globe, the reverberations from this unified day continued to shape international efforts for environmental action. 

The 1992 Earth Summit brought together representatives from 179 nations, and the group produced two significant conventions: A Framework Convention on Climate Change and A Framework Convention on Biological DiversityThese were aimed at decreasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emission as well as protecting and sustaining the world’s plant and animal biodiversity, respectively. 

At the same time as the summit, a global forum was held in Rio de Janeiro. The Rio Declarations that came out of the forum featured 27 principles for the unified promotion of sustainable environmental practices, including in situations of war. Also included was a clause ensuring a global partnership to move towards sustainable development. The sense that global governments needed to come together to work on legislation and agreements to create an international blueprint to protect the environment had taken hold. 

Individual nations were also agents of change. In 1991, Sweden created a historic carbon tax which remains a foundation of the nation’s environmental policies. Just a few years later in 1994, Costa Rica made an addendum to its constitution, adding the right to a healthy environment. These acts symbolized an important shift in how environmental concerns were framed  — they had, in effect, become human rights issues. 

The footprints of the very first Earth Day can still be seen globally. It ignited generational activism to support the environment, and today many different regions worldwide use Earth Day as a reminder of these shared goals. Though they may be celebrating in different ways, what unites them is this very special day. In Granada, Spain, the Global Unity and Regeneration Gathering highlights the importance of a mental and spiritual connection with the Earth. In Japan, the two-day celebration at Yoyogi Park has become a time of giving thanks filled with performers and conversation. Though different, these celebrations both echo the impact that Earth Day has had on our mindset surrounding environmental activism. 

This shift has led to incredible environmental achievements globally, such as Brazil’s reduction of Amazon Rainforest deforestation. After declaring in 2005 that the nation would strive to reduce deforestation by 80% by 2020, Brazil was able to decrease the rate by 67% in only five years. If they can prioritize changes that yield such significant results, what else can we do?

With Earth Day 2024 quickly approaching, now is the perfect time to reassert our commitment to prioritizing environmental sustainability. In a 2020 interview with EARTHDAY.ORG, Denis Hayes, he emphasized the dual importance of both new policies and new perspective in bringing forth changes after the first Earth Day. 

“In the 1960s, the most common perception of pollution was that it’s the smell of progress, the smell of prosperity,” Hayes said. “And we were able to create a context in which people began to change their behavior… for environmental reasons.”

Earth Day 2024’s Theme is Planet vs. Plastics, with the demand that we reduce plastic production by 60% by 2040. If we choose to prioritize this goal, we could make it reality, because half of ALL the plastic produced annually is single use plastic. We use it once and throw it away so that it creates plastic graveyards in our landfills and our oceans. Can we embrace the spirit of the very first Earth Day once more, from 54 years ago, and collectively decide that is not acceptable? Make a difference this Earth Day — sign the Global Plastics Treaty, stop using single-use plastic, demand that retailers and the fast food industry listen to you and whatever you do — DON’T GIVE UP!


Earth Day, press release, 2024-04-22.


Earth Day Network
US Government


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