One U.S. senator and a core of young organizers turned April 22, 1970, into the day the environmental movement was born.
On that day, 20 million Americans in 2,000 communities and 10,000 schools planted trees, cleaned up parks, buried cars in mock graves, marched, listened to speeches and protested how humans were messing up their world.
Earth Day was the brainchild of Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., who came up with the idea of a national teach-in on the environment after 3 million gallons of oil spilled across the beaches of Santa Barbara, Calif., and killed 10,000 seabirds in January 1969.
Nelson's idea gave birth to a green movement and a green generation that would be as powerful as the industrial revolution in shaping the future of civilization.
Denis Hayes was heading to law school at Harvard in 1969 when he answered an ad looking to organize environmental teach-ins in New England. Hayes had been a prominent activist against the Vietnam War as the president of the Stanford student body.
He went to Sen. Nelson's office in Washington to interview — and came away the national coordinator.
He gathered together a staff of 20 idealistic young people to get information out to the thousands of colleges, schools and community groups that had expressed an interesting in participating in the Earth Day event.
Hayes and his group of Green Generation activists left the streets and got into political action.
They raised $50,000 for a national campaign to oust Congress' environmental "Dirty Dozen." Their efforts contributed to the defeat of seven of the 12, including the powerful chairman of the House Public Works Committee, Democratic Rep. George Fallon of Baltimore.
Over the next decade, Congress passed the 28 major initiatives that became the foundation of the nation's environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and amendments strengthening the National Environmental Policy Act. Many passed in the first three years after Earth Day and were signed by President Nixon.
In 1966, Nelson hadn't been able to find a single co-sponsor when he introduced a bill to ban the pesticide DDT, which was shown to cause the thinning of eggs of bald eagles, peregrine falcons and other of America's disappearing raptors.
By 1972, DDT had been banned.