Climate Action, CliMates

Earth Day: the undone history of a movement

This article is written by Nicolas Pinceloup.

What are Earth Days?

As you may or may not know there are two different Earth Days. The first one is happening during the summer equinox of the northern hemisphere (March the 20th) and the second one on the 22nd of April.

Equinox Earth Day

In 1969 at the UNESCO Conference on the Environment, a peace activist, John McConnell, gave the idea of a holiday to celebrate Mother Earth. It was decided that the celebration would take place while the sun passes over the equator, that is during the equinox, when night and day are of the same length for a brief moment. At this date, the Peace Bell offered by Japan to the United Nations rang and this tradition is still going on today and spread to many other places (Paris, Vienna, Tokyo…). A proclamation was written by McConnell and signed by the UN secretary-general U Thant, in which we can read :

“May there be only peaceful and cheerful Earth Days to come for our beautiful SpaceShip Earth as it continues to spin and circle in frigid space with its warm and fragile cargo of animate life.”



The event was created by the US Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970 on April, 22nd, in order to join universities, students, schools and the general public over environmental issues. It occurred during a period where the US economy was booming and industries were flourishing. But in the meantime, the environment was nowhere to be seen in the political debate. Instead it was shadowed by the Vietnam war and the anti-war movement alongside with the Hippie movement which started in the 60s. It may have been this particular situation that led to the creation of EarthDay, or maybe was it because of Silent spring (1962), a book written by Rachel Carson which is often quoted as the starter of the environmental awareness. Whatever it was, for the first time, America was together to celebrate Earth. Universally approved by political parties and by the general public, it led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and to the creation of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. The beginning of the modern environmental movement was tremendous. Imagine 20 million American citizens united in a common direction. Imagine 200 million people from 141 countries gathered around EarthDay in 1990 thanks to the action of Danis Hayes to make international.

But what happened then?

It seems like all the efforts and the good will which permitted this original success vanished. Today we are struggling to find a common and binding agreement to tackle Climate Change and a massive denial movement. This can be explained by division in the public opinion about the reality of Climate Change, or the human responsibility, or the link between green house gases and global warming. Today the threat caused by the disturbance of the climate to our civilisation is greater than ever even if many people doubt that consequences will touch them.

A big anniversary

For the 45th birthday of this celebration, it seems like the obstacles to tackle Climate Change are greater than ever. It seems like while the population became aware of the problem, economical priorities took over everything. But forty-five years after the first EarthDay, the United States of America have a president awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize. And Hilary Clinton, who is running for the presidency, has made “tackling climate change & clean energy” two of her campaign’s top priorities. Forty-five years after the first celebration that joined together one million people in Central Park, NYC, a Conference Of the Parties will be held in Paris at the end of 2015. And even if the French President François Holland – who is hosting the event – thinks that finding an agreement will be difficult, China and the USA have already taken the lead to announce their plans to limit their C02 emissions. Which means two of the greatest polluters are paving the way towards COP21 with positive intentions.

What now?

For the forty-fifth anniversary of Earth Day, we shall take a stand toward sustainable development. Because those who will be hit the hardest by climate change are the poorest and the most vulnerable. Because today green energy is finally cheaper than the good old oil. Because today we can eradicate poverty if “all countries commit to a low carbon future”. Economic growth can be achieved without destroying the environment, we just need the political will.


You can join EarthDay wherever you are!

About the author: Nicolas Pinceloup graduated from a master’s degree in plant biology at the University of Strasbourg. Resolute to dedicate his life to the protection of the environment, he is currently looking for the appropriate job opportunity. At the beginning of 2015 he joined CliMates and is now involved in the Responsibility project and in the OceanAcidification project.

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