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Earth Day: How It Began, What You Can Do

Photo by BL 1961

In 1970, spearheaded by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, to draw attention to the environmental issues plaguing the planet and human health, nearly 20 million Americans participated in events on April 22. Named Earth Day, April 22 has remained a time to celebrate the restoration and protection of our the planet. Earth Day has grown into a global tradition, with a billion people in 180 nations around the world expected to take part in 2009.

Kathleen Rogers, president of Washington, D.C.-based Earth Day Network (EDN), which was founded by the original organizers of Earth Day, said April 22, 1970, was chosen for the first Earth Day in part because it fell on a Wednesday, the best part of the week to encourage a large turnout for the environmental rallies held across the country.

The first Earth Day was effective at raising awareness about environmental issues and impacting public attitudes. In December 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established and given the mandate to protect human health and safeguard the natural environment—air, water and land. During the 1970s, a number of environmental legislations were passed, including the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

In 1990, Earth Day went global, with 200 million people in over 140 nations participating, according to EDN. “Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.”

In 2000, Earth Day focused on clean energy and involved hundreds of millions of people in 184 countries and 5,000 environmental groups, according to EDN. Activities ranged from a traveling, talking drum chain in Gabon, Africa, to a gathering of hundreds of thousands of people at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Today, the Earth Day Network collaborates with over 17,000 partners and organizations in 174 countries. According to EDN, more than 1 billion people are involved in Earth Day activities, making it “the largest secular civic event in the world.”

Amy Cassara, who analyzes global environmental trends at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C., noted that, since Earth Day started, environmentalism has moved from a fringe issue to a mainstream concern. “As many as 80 percent of Americans describe themselves as environmentalists,” Cassara said. Environmental issues today, however, are less immediate than dirty air, toxic water, and a hole in the ozone layer. For example, the impacts of global climate change are largely abstract and difficult to explain “without coming off as a doomsday prognosticator,” Cassara said. “As we become more industrialized and our supply chains become less transparent, it can be more difficult to understand the environmental consequences of our actions,” she noted.

Earth Day Network is pushing the Earth Day movement from single-day actions—such as park cleanups and tree-planting parties—to long-term commitments.

Did you know…

3.7 billion: World population in 1970
6.7 billion: World population in 2009
111.2 million: Number of vehicles on the road in the U.S. in 1970
238.3 million: Number of vehicles on the road in the U.S. in 2009
57.2°: Average global temperature from 1970-1979 (in degrees Fahrenheit)
58.3°: Average global temperature from 2000-2008 (in degrees Fahrenheit)
220,000: Tons of U.S. lead emissions in 1970
4,000: Tons of U.S. lead emissions in 2008
75: Percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions from 1970 to 2004

Putting into Perspective:

*The garbage in a landfill stays for about 30 years
* Each person throws away approximately four pounds of garbage every day
* One bus carries as many people as 40 cars
* More than 1/3 of all energy is used by people at home
* Most families throw away about 88 pounds of plastic every year
* We each use about 12,000 gallons of water every year
* 1/3 of all water is used to flush the toilet
* The 500 million automobiles on earth burn an average of 2 gallons of fuel a day
* Each gallon of fuel releases 20 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air
* Approximately 5 million tons of oil produced in the world each ear ends up in the ocean.
* The energy we save when we recycle one glass bottle is enough to light a traditional light bulb for four hours
* For every 2000 pounds of paper (1 ton) recycled, we save 7,000 gallons of water free from chemicals
* Recycled paper requires 64% less energy than making paper from virgin wood pulp, and can save many trees
* Every ton of paper that is recycled saves 17 trees
* The amount of wood and paper we throw away is enough to heat 50 million homes for 20 years
* 14 billion pounds of trash is dumped into the ocean every year
* It takes 90% less energy to recycle aluminum cans than to make new ones
* 5 billion aluminum cans are used each year
* 84% of all household waste can be recycled
* Computers pose an environmental threat because much of the material that makes them up is hazardous. A typical monitor contains 4-5 pounds of lead
* Each year billions of used batteries are thrown away in the United States. This constitutes 88% of the mercury and 54% of the cadmium deposited into our landfills
* Only about 10% of every landfill can be cleaned up

* Here is an example of the water we use everyday:
3-7 gallons for toilet,
25-30 gallons for tub,
50-70 gallons for a 10 minute shower,
1 washing machine load uses 25-40 gallons,
1 dishwasher load uses 9-12 gallons

* Here is an example of how long it takes some things take to break down:
plastics take 500 years,
aluminum cans take 500 years,
organic materials, take 6 months,
cotton, rags, paper take 6 months.

What can you do?
History.com has a great list to get you started!

Share with us what you are doing today, Earth Day and everyday…

[via National Geographic , History Channel , Planetpals ]


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