The idea of Earth Day came to founder Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student’s Vietnam anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. As a result, on the 22nd of April 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.
Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.
Denis Hayes, who was the original national coordinator of the event in 1970, took it international in 1990 and organized events in 141 nations mobilizing 200 million people. Earth Day is now coordinated globally by the Earth Day Network, and celebrated in more than 192 countries each year. EDN’s international network reaches over 22,000 organizations in these countries, coordinating thousands of community development and environmental protection activities throughout the year. Nelson was later awarded the the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1995) — the highest honor given to civilians in the United States.