Greening Campus: Colleges Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day

Apr 19, 2010

In 1970, Earth Day started with environmental rallies across the country, concentrated primarily on college campuses. Forty years later, students continue to play an important role in one of the biggest environmental events in the world.

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Earth Day 2010 EDN

A Call For Action

In 1969, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin put out a call for a nationwide teaching day about environmental issues. He hoped to launch a grassroots conservation movement that would get the attention of policymakers in D.C. and spark real change. The following year, a committee in Philadelphia organized the first Earth Week, which culminated in an Earth Day speech by U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie, author of the Clean Air Act of 1970. Made up primarily of students from the University of Pennsylvania, who worked with local professionals and organizers, the Earth Week Committee marked the beginning of a close relationship between American higher education and the modern green movement.

Students were already fired up about the environment in the 1960s, and Earth Day allowed them to bring their concerns to the rest of the country. A September 1969 article in The New York Times noted the fledgling movement: 'Rising concern about the 'environmental crisis' is sweeping the nation's campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam...a national day of observance of environmental problems, analogous to the mass demonstrations on Vietnam, is being planned for next spring...'

McConnell Earth Day Flag

Unofficial Earth Day flag, created by John McConnell, who introduced the equinox Earth Day.

Forty years later, Earth Day has become an important international event that educates people on environmental issues and helps organizations and individuals work toward finding solutions. It's typically celebrated in spring in the northern hemisphere and fall in the southern hemisphere. The United Nations celebrates on the spring equinox, around March 20, and the United States always celebrates on April 22, although this year's events are happening through the April 25. While Earth Day is considered the central focus, many organizations still observe the whole Earth Week as an opportunity to host a series of lectures, rallies and other consciousness-raising events.

Earth Day's 40th anniversary is being marked this year with a huge rally on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Noting that 'the first Earth Day was a success because 20 million Americans demonstrated their outrage for the state of the environment,' organizers hope to channel that same energy in support of climate change. Many environmentalists are disappointed at the way that the Obama administration has handled climate change and carbon emissions, and they're looking to this rally to voice their concerns en masse. Lots of famous people are scheduled to speak, including movie director James Cameron, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, author Margaret Atwood and NFL star Dhani Jones. Jimmy Cliff, Sting and The Roots are among the 14 big-name bands who will be providing musical entertainment. Individuals who can't make it to D.C. can watch the event live on

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Studying Sustainability

Of course, Earth Day is about education as much as politics, and the Earth Day Network is promoting events at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels. For the younger set, they're focusing on the health benefits of spending time outdoors. Today's kids are notorious for spending more time in front of computer and TV screens than outside - some studies estimate that students now spend about 90% of their time indoors. Through environmental education, Earth Day organizers hope to teach kids how they can help the environment by getting outside and having fun.

At the postsecondary level, the Earth Day Network is hoping to harness that unique college student energy to promote change. They're offering guides to help students organize and demand more sustainable practices on college campuses nationwide, as well as a venue to promote events like rallies, forums and service projects. The Earth Day Network suggests a simple strategy: Show people that the green movement is about more than just saving trees by teaching them that environmental health and a sustainable future will improve everyone's lives.

Green Energy

For the 40th anniversary, the Earth Day Network is promoting one event that reaches out to all levels of education. '40 School Greening Projects for the 40th Anniversary' encourages students to organize 40 greening projects at their campuses. Sample projects include cleaning up facilities, installing more efficient lighting fixtures, building school gardens, conserving water, installing solar panels and adding an environmental education component to school curricula. The goal is to show students how they can make a big difference through a series of small acts.

Of course, colleges and universities across the country are organizing their own events. Dartmouth is hosting a lecture on sustainable design as well as film screenings and other events around the theme of 'Building Bridges: Leadership and Activism During Times of Change.' Goucher College is hosting 'Low Carbon Diet Day,' during which the school will serve sustainable foods and education students on how food production and consumption affects climate change.

The famous Dr. Emoto, who wrote the bestselling book The Hidden Messages in Water, will speak at Evergreen State College to promote awareness of humans' relationship to water. The talk will also explore the importance of ecological diversity in our nation's lakes, rivers and other waterways.

Other campus events include a 24-hour garbage assessment - how much trash do you make in one day? - as well as lectures on environmental law, film festivals on sustainability and Earth Day fairs featuring booths on every subject imaginable. Check with your school to find out what Earth Day events are going on this week, or visit to explore public events happening all over the world.

What are you doing for Earth Day? Tweet @Studydotcom with your favorite Earth Day events and green tips!

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