Forty-five years ago, on April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million people took to the streets for the first ever Earth Day. It was the largest public demonstration in United States history and helped turn environmentalism into a mass social movement for the first time. Today, Earth Day is known for feel-good concerts, eco-fairs, or recycling parties. But in 1970, Earth Day still had bite. The story of how it came together, where it succeeded, and where it failed, contains powerful lessons for today’s environmental movement.
“I was satisfied that if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the national political agenda,” Nelson later recalled.