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Earth Day Turns 50 This Year

04/14/2020 13:10

Earth Day Turns 50 This Year

Earth Day will be celebrated for the 50th time this year, with the theme "taking action on climate change". We plan to celebrate by doing what we do every day - working to give everyone the opportunity to use clean, renewable energy - but let’s also take a look backward to examine how Earth Day got started, and how it has evolved over its first 50 years.

Viewing the Earth as a Whole

Ironically, it took humanity's departure from Earth to incite a fuller appreciation for it. Of the many contributions NASA's Apollo program made to our society, our species, and our understanding of the physical sciences, a single photograph captured by astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 may be the most important and far-reaching.

As the Apollo 8 Command Module zoomed around the moon in one of its ten lunar orbits, Earth came into full view, and with it, the opportunity to capture its beauty in its entirety. Anders began shooting on a Hasselblad camera. Two days after the crew's safe return to Earth, technicians developed Anders' film and revealed his iconic "Earthrise" photo (above). In the coming days and weeks it was featured on the covers of countless newspapers, magazines, and other publications (including Steward Brand's Whole Earth Catalog - the inspiration for a young John Schaeffer to start a company called Real Goods).

As the Earthrise photo went viral, people all across the world got their first glimpse of Earth - not as patches of land and water filled with adjacent biomes and imaginary borders between jurisdictions, but as a lone, fragile, closed system with finite resources, whose inhabitants all depend on each other. All these things were known at the time, but were very difficult to understand on a personal level. Earthrise said it more simply and directly than anything that came before. As Anders himself put it, "we had come all the way to the moon to study the moon, and what we really discovered was the Earth."

Earth Day was founded less than 16 months later.

Earth Day Set the Stage for the EPA and Then Blossomed

United States Senator Gaylord Nelson is the person responsible for founding Earth Day as we know it today. Nelson recognized that in order to get environmental issues into the national political spotlight, something big was needed. So he went big - attempting to create a national holiday is an undeniably bold move - and he succeeded. Twenty million Americans (over 10% of America's population at the time) joined various demonstrations across the country as part of the inaugural Earth Day celebration on April 22, 1970.

Fifth Avenue in New York filled with demonstrators in support of the inaugural Earth Day. Image by Bettman/CORBIS.

The impressive public response to this new holiday encouraged Congress in December 1970 to create a new federal agency to study, monitor, and regulate environmental issues: The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. Other factors played into the EPA's creation as well (like oil spills, a river catching fire, and Rachel Carson's work studying chemical pesticides), but the groundswell of public support for environmental stewardship fueled by the Earthrise photo and the new Earth Day holiday were instrumental.

On the heels of the EPA's creation came the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973). In the decades since, the Agency has continued taking regulatory steps to limit pollution, ban toxic chemicals, and increase production efficiency.

By Earth Day's 20th birthday in 1990, the holiday was being celebrated in 140 countries. By its 30th birthday in 2000, that number was up to 184 countries.

This year, Earth Day is turning 50.

How Can You Participate in Earth Day 2020?

In a typical year, there are hundreds of organized Earth Day events around the world. This year, with the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing rules in place, things are obviously different as large gatherings are temporarily banned in many parts of the world. So how can you show your support for the planet on April 22 while participating in this year’s "taking action on climate change" theme?

The best thing any of us can do as individuals to commemorate Earth Day is to take the meaning of the holiday - a respect for resource conservation, environmental preservation, and biodiversity - and apply it to our everyday actions, especially our consumption habits. Buying locally-grown food with reusable shopping bags; shortening our showers by a minute or two; donating to and buying from second-hand stores to keep lightly used furniture, housewares, and clothing out of landfills...these are a few examples of how we can all chip in to help the preserve our own environment and resources.

But if you want to make a bigger contribution this Earth Day, you can make the switch to using clean, renewable energy at your home or business with solar panels!

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