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Earth Day's beginnings rooted in 1970s activism

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(Source: MGN photos) (Source: MGN photos)
U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-ME), author of the 1970 Clean Air Act, addressed an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people at Earth Day in Philadelphia. (Source: Peter54321/Wikicommons) U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-ME), author of the 1970 Clean Air Act, addressed an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people at Earth Day in Philadelphia. (Source: Peter54321/Wikicommons)
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(RNN) – What started as a teach-in has flowered into an international phenomenon. Earth Day will be celebrated around the world Tuesday.

The observance was first held in 1970, the idea of Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who took the idea from the Vietnam war opposition movement and the proliferation of teach-ins during that time, according to the Earth Day Network.

To plan the event, Nelson joined with Congressman Pete McCloskey, a Republican from California interested in conservation, and Denis Hayes, who was selected by Nelson to be the event's national coordinator. Earth Day was described as "a national teach-in on the crisis of the environment," according to the Gaylord Nelson website.

April 22 was chosen as the date for Earth Day because it was thought to fit best between colleges' spring break and final exams.

The observance tapped into a growing awareness of environmental degradation in the U.S., including smog in large metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and water pollution blamed for fish deaths in the Great Lakes, according to Jack Lewis of the EPA Journal.

A book written in 1962 would set the stage for the environmental awakening in the U.S.: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. In her book, she took on the chemical industry by questioning the use of DDT, a powerful and persistent pesticide. The Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of the pesticide, a carcinogen, 10 years later, but "residues of concern from historical use still remain."

At the time, Earth Day was not without its critics on the left and the right, according to papers in Gaylord Nelson's collection.

Some activists alleged the environmental focus was distracting the nation from the issues of the Vietnam War, civil rights and social justice. According to the Nelson collection, "Others on the left complained to Nelson that environmentalists were not targeting the deeper economic structures responsible for pollution. Rep. Paul McCloskey claimed that members of Students for a Democratic Society heckled him and Nelson as 'fascist pigs.'"

Some conservatives expressed concerns about activism, including Urban T. Kucchle, a Milwaukee corporation president who was concerned about militants advocating  "the total overthrow of the business community."

Still, 20 million people in the U.S. took to the streets for the first Earth Day. Congress went into recess for the day so its members could speak to constituents visiting Capitol Hill for the event.

Rallies were held in Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities, and a number of celebrities threw their support behind the national teach-in, including Paul Newman, Ali McGraw and Pete Seeger.

The event in New York City attracted a lot of fanfare, with a section of Fifth Avenue closed in midtown Manhattan.

"One innovative group of demonstrators grabbed attention by dragging a net filled with dead fish down the thoroughfare, shouting to passersby, 'This could be you!'" Lewis said.

The year 1970, and the decade in general, would prove to be a watershed time for environmental protection.

The EPA was established in December 1970 by President Richard Nixon as part of the National Environmental Policy Act signed Jan. 1 that year. Congress passed the Clean Air Act the same year.

Within the decade, Congress would pass more key pieces of environmental legislation such as the Clean Water Act and Noise Control Act in 1972, the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1973, the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976.

By 1990, Earth Day celebrations became global in scope. According to the Earth Day Network, more than 1 billion people are involved in Earth Day activities each year, making it "the largest secular civic event in the world."

Copyright 2014 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.

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