The Birth of Earth Day

The Environmental Action Coalition and the Birth of Earth Day

In 1969, a 4.2 million gallon oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara became the most devastating environmental disaster in human history, destroying hundreds of miles of California coastline. This catastrophe sparked a teach-in on environmental subjects initiated by Gaylord Nelson (Democratic Senator from Wisconsin) and Paul McCloskey (Republican Congressman from California) that was the genesis of the first Earth Day. College campuses, local libraries, and other public forums hosted the teach-ins developed by residents, eventually spawning the catchphrase, “Think globally, act locally.”


April 22, 1970

Earth Day began as the brainchild of U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, who tied the teach-in concept used by contemporary Vietnam War protesters to the environmentalist movement. After proposing the idea of a nationwide environmental teach-in in September 1969, Nelson formed the nonprofit Environmental Action, Inc. to act as a planning group for the big event, set for April 22, 1970. He hired law student Denis Hayes to organize Earth Day on the national level. In turn, local groups handled the logistics for regional events. One such group was the Environmental Action Coalition of New York, formed to coordinate New York City’s Earth Day events and maintained afterward as a locus for environmental awareness and activism.

The festivities for Earth Day in New York City took shape around two primary locations: Fifth Avenue and Union Square. Some balked at these choices, seeing the natural beauty of Central Park as a more appropriate base. However, the EAC defended its decision, noting that “Earth Day is a day of action, education, and involvement — a day when people go into the streets — the teeming streets, if you will — and there have brought forcibly to their attention the filth of the gutters, the stench of the air, the screech of auto horns, the grime of the subways, the taste of contaminated food, and the roar of construction.”

The Times estimated that about 100,000 people visited the festivities in Union Square, with around 20,000 present at any one time.

Union Square crowds (left) and clean air bubble (right).
Environmental Action Coalition records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.