Inspired by the devastating Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson organized the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Over 20 million people participated that first  year; today, more than 500 million people and 175 countries celebrate Earth Day.

Earth Day was actually originally conceived by Fred Dutton, Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy. Dutton favored a top-down approach, while Nelson leaned towards a grassroots effort that allowed each community to shape their actions according to local concerns. Nelson’s concept was the one that caught on.

As is usually the case in situations like these, students got involved first, organizing protests against environmental degradation. In some areas, like Philadelphia, Earth Day became Earth Week and featured speeches from activists, scientists, and authors.

The massive success of the first Earth Day ensured it would continue to be observed. What began as a celebration to be held every 10 years quickly morphed into an annual event that has helped bring environmental issues to the forefront of the world’s consciousness.

And on the subject of environmentalism, happy birthday to Julius Sterling Morton, secretary of agriculture to Grover Cleveland and founder of Arbor Day!

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