Earth Day 2023: Securing Humanity's Stewardship of the Natural Environment
Earth Day has been observed for more than fifty years. Since its inception in the United States in 1970, Earth Day has inspired many millions of people to act and make positive changes in their communities, either on Earth Day April 22 or the day of the spring equinox.
Today, as the world grapples with numerous environmental challenges, including the effects of climate change, Earth Day’s importance has only grown.
By the mid-1960s, amid antiwar and civil rights social protest movements, many Americans became concerned about how industrial pollution affected the environment.
Smokestacks belched foul-smelling and strangely colored gases into the air. Big cities, like New York City and Los Angeles, struggled with smog.
On January 28, 1969, a blowout on a drilling platform off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, caused a massive oil spill—one of the biggest in the US. It led to the death of thousands of birds, fish, and other sea creatures, and befouled beaches and ecosystems over an area of 800 square miles.
Then in June 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire because it was so contaminated with chemicals.
These and other disasters prompted a groundswell of activism. A prominent environmentalist in Congress, US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, led a broad cross-section of concerned citizens—environmentalists, scientists, politicians, and business leaders—to create Earth Day on April 22, 1970. It was a day to get educated and active in saving the environment. Twenty million Americans took part in rallies, teach-ins, and other events.
Other historical events ensued: In early 1970, President Richard Nixon began taking actions to establish a new federal agency to oversee US natural resources and take on the mission of fighting pollution. Congress worked all year with the White House, holding hearings and crafting legislation, and by the end of the year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was born. The EPA’s first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, was sworn into office on December 4, 1970.
Then came the Clean Air Act (initially legislated in 1963, with amendments in 1970, 1977, and 1990), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973) to help protect the United States from pollution.
But America wasn't the only country with environmental problems. That's why Earth Day went global in 1990, and now it's celebrated in more than 190 countries.
Earth Day Activities
There are plenty of free ways to honor Earth Day. Consider these ideas to get started.
Being outside in nature can tangibly affect our lives. It's not just about feeling good—natural and built outdoor environments can have an uplifting impact on everything from thoughts and emotions to actions. Spending time in green spaces, like city parks, community gardens, and even just one’s backyard, can make a significant, positive difference in physical and mental health. Being in nature can help one make friends, stay active, get chores done, be more mindful, and even lower pollution levels. So, just getting outside is an excellent way to celebrate Earth Day.
Taking it (literally) a step further, one can share experiences with others by creating or joining a nature or hiking club. Hiking and exploring nature requires a little preparation and a few items like proper clothing, good shoes, and a cell phone with nature apps like iNaturalist, the Audubon Bird Guide App, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID app, PlantSnap, or others to help identify birds, plants, trees, and flowers. Fellow hikers can be found on MeetUp or one’s local community page on Facebook.
Environmental Service Activities
Earth Day traditionally offers service projects to make a difference in one’s community:
Plant a community garden.
Grocery stores' produce has a massive carbon footprint due to how far the goods must be transported. Growing food in one’s neighborhood reduces carbon emissions and helps promote neighborhood unity. To get started, get neighbors together to locate a piece of public or privately owned land; work up a land use agreement with the owner (here’s a sample land owner agreement); and finally, do some planting. The Noble Research Institute has some great advice on starting a community garden.
Organize a community litter pick-up campaign.
Getting together with friends or neighbors to pick up litter can be an Earth Day—or even a weekly—activity.
A community litter pick-up improves public spaces’ appearance and the community overall. A study from Penn State shows that cleaning up neighborhoods reduces crime and improves the quality of life. When vacant lots were cleared of trash, graded, seeded with new grass, planted with trees, and protected with low wooden fences, there was a 29% drop in gun violence, a 22% decrease in burglaries, and a 30% decrease in noise complaints and illegal dumping.
Composting is the process of turning waste into nutrient-rich food for plants. Even better, composting keeps food waste and garden debris out of landfills. Read more in The Earth & I article “Stopping the Food Waste—An Introduction to Composting.”
Even if one doesn’t have a green thumb, one can still make the world a little greener. Many people celebrate Earth Day by planting a tree, but an easier way to help the Earth and promote healthy biodiversity in one’s area is by spreading native wildflower seeds.
Wildflower seeds don’t need to be intentionally “planted” to grow. If they are thrown into abandoned lots, abandoned planters around town, and ditches, lovely flowers will pop up on their own.
The flowers will also attract pollinators and help grow the dwindling bee population. This native plant tool helps to find native wildflowers for one’s area.
Reduce the use of plastics.
The production of plastics creates 232 million tons of CO2 emissions annually that contribute to global warming. After plastic is produced, used, and discarded, it harms the environment by filling landfills, polluting land and waterways, and sometimes entangling wildlife.
Reducing plastic use is a great way to observe Earth Day. Start by using reusable straws and shopping bags instead of plastic ones. Try to buy products that are in compostable containers (like cardboard) or containers that are recyclable. It can be as easy as choosing a soda in a can instead of a plastic bottle.
A host of environmental service organizations support additional projects. For example, Project Drawdown offers a Table of Solutions | Project Drawdown, and EARTHDAY.ORG offers an Earth Day Action Toolkit. Choosing one or more of these actions goes a long way to improve the natural environment, not only on Earth Day but every day.