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Every year on April 22, more than a billion people in over 190 countries around the world take part in Earth Day celebrations to show their support for a healthy planet. The first Earth Day in 1970 was marked by rallies and protests. More than 50 years later, Earth Day is celebrated in a variety of ways – festivals, educational events, political and civic demonstrations and just about anything you can imagine. Here are 10 things you may not know about the origin and history of this significant occasion.
Gaylord Anton Nelson, a one term governor and three-term US senator from Wisconsin, was also a conservationist and environmentalist widely viewed as the founder of Earth Day. With little or no regulations on the books to protect the environment, Senator Nelson created the nationwide observance to put the issue on the national agenda. Evidently, it worked. By the end of the year, the Nixon administration had created the US Environmental Protection Agency.
2. The Santa Barbara Environmental Rights Day was the precursor to Earth Day. On January 28, 1969, there was a massive blowout on the Union Oil platform. More than 3 million gallons of oil spilled into the waters off the coast of Santa Barbara, creating an 800 square-mile oil slick and killing tens of thousands of birds and marine animals. On the one year anniversary, environmental activists held Environmental Rights Day to make sure the incident was not forgotten. Three months later, the country held the first Earth Day celebration.
3. The idea to call it Earth Day came from Julien Koenig, the advertising executive who created the "Think Small” Volkswagen ad campaign. Koenig considered "Ecology Day," "Environment Day," and "E Day” before settling on “Earth Day” because it rhymes with "birthday." April 22 was also Koenig’s birthday.
4. Standard Oil of New Jersey (now ExxonMobil) tried to make a $20,000 donation to support the first Earth Day event but organizers turned down the money. They justifiably believed it would destroy the organization’s credibility.
5. Earth Day organizers incorporated successful strategies from the Civil Rights and Anti-War. They promoted large urban rallies, focused on major environmental issues, while also encouraging environmental education at the K-12 level.
6. Earth Day was initially slated to be a nationwide environmental teach-in on several college campuses but quickly grew beyond the original idea to include the entire country. More than 20 million people took part in the festivities, protests and events.
7. Earth Day went international for the first time on its 20th anniversary in 1990. Denis Hayes, the event’s first national coordinator, organized events in 141 nations.
8. The Paris Agreement, considered the most significant climate accord in the history of the movement, was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, China and 120 other countries on Earth Day 2016.
9. The world was in a pandemic lockdown for the 50th anniversary in 2020. Nonetheless, over 100 million people worldwide came together online, making it the largest online mass mobilization in history.
10. Every Earth Day has a different theme. The theme for Earth Day 2003 was Water for Life. The 2005 theme was Healthy Environments for Children. In 2016, the theme was Trees for Earth with a focus on urban planning and reforestation. Invest In Our Planet is the official theme for Earth Day 2022.