The first-ever Earth Day and its evolution into a global event

Over 50 years have passed since voices protesting the need to care for the Earth were first raised in the one-day effort known as Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

Event began in the U.S. in 1970 and has since seen people participating in it around the world

Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes on the 1970 event

54 years ago
Duration 1:06
In Washington, D.C., the Earth Day co-ordinator Denis Hayes explained the purpose of the day's focus on environmental issues.

Over the decades, Earth Day has grown into a global event that puts the health of the planet in the spotlight each April 22.

The original Earth Day, in 1970, was a U.S.-led initiative, with rallies and teach-ins planned from Washington, D.C., by national co-ordinator Denis Hayes.  

'A series of environmental catastrophes'

Interviewed by CBC News, Hayes referred to what was considered a landmark publication on the subject of environmental catastrophe.  

"For the past several years," he said, "there's been a growing concern with environmental affairs, sparked probably by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring."

Black and white photo of a man sitting at a desk. A woman, behind the desk, stands in front of a poster that reads "Environmental Teach-in April 22, 1970".
Denis Hayes, is shown posing April 1970 in the Washington D.C. office where activities for the first-ever Earth Day were being organized. (CWH/The Associated Press)

He went on to list a series of environmental catastrophes including the death of Lake Erie, the big oil spill in Santa Barbara, and the inflammation of the Cuyahoga River.

"On Earth Day," he continued, "we're going to be focusing the whole society's concerns upon the broad range of environmental issues that are coming up ... to the whole series of ways that we are destroying the world that some of us really want to live in 30 years from now."

The Globe and Mail reported the next day that this "first mass observance of the world's environmental problems" captured the attention of "millions of North Americans," listing rallies "involving up to 25,000" in some major cities.

Earth Day observed by Windsor and Detroit in 1970

54 years ago
Duration 0:58
The polluted waters shared by Windsor and Detroit were highlighted in a ceremony on the water.

A CBC News report on that first Earth Day featured a protest held in the Canada-U.S. border city of Windsor, Ont., where protesters sang about giving "Earth a chance," carried signs warning of environmental disaster and watched a mock funeral on the river Windsor shared with Detroit.

With a bugler playing The Last Post, boats carrying the flags of both countries pulled funeral wreaths through the Detroit River. The waterway flows into Lake Erie, the body of water referenced by Earth Day organizer Hayes.

People carrying protest signs
Protesters in Windsor, Ont., marched on the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970. (CBC News/CBC Archives)

In 1990, Earth Day became a global celebration, with CBC reporting on participation by an estimated 200 million people in at least 136 countries.  

Elizabeth May, the future federal Green Party leader, was then executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada. In Ottawa, a couple of days before the event, she appeared on CBC-TV's Midday.

Elizabeth May, inspired by Earth Day 1970

34 years ago
Duration 0:27
The executive director of the Sierra Club described her involvement in the green movement after Earth Day in 1970.

She talked about her memories of the first-ever Earth Day in 1970.

"I was in 10th grade, and I got as concerned as people were getting in those days," May said.

May described writing up her own pamphlet and going door to door with it, telling Midday "I basically haven't stopped since."

"The environmental movement was considered to have been born on that day ... and it's time to draw in some more people and redouble our efforts," she added.

Crowd on Parliament Hill
Parliament Hill in Ottawa was crowded with Earth Day participants on April 22, 1990. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

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