The height of hippie and flower-child culture in the United States, 1970 marked the death of Jimi Hendrix, the last Beatles album, and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Protest still ruled the day. At the time, Americans were burning leaded gas through massive V8 engines. And industry released smoke and sludge into the air and waters with little fear of legal consequence or bad press.
Although mainstream America had little response to environmental concerns, the stage was set for change by the publication of Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962, which raised public awareness and concern for the environment and public health.
The idea came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin,Inspired by the teach-ins formed to protest the Vietnam War, after witnessing the massive 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Senator Nelson, an environmental activist, took a leading role in organizing the celebration, starting at universities, and hoping to demonstrate popular political support for an environmental agenda. American Heritage Magazine called the first Earth Day “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy.”
As a result, on the 22nd of April, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in coast-to-coast rallies. Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, gaining support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city people and farmers. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.