Crowds gather in front of Independence Mall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as part of Earth Day rallies in 1970. The U.S. event, which involved 20 million people, has ballooned into a worldwide call to action involving an estimated 1 billion participants. This year the coronavirus pandemic has caused the event to go virtual. (AP photo)

Fifty years ago this week, millions of Americans raised their voices to demand action to protect our air, land and water from polluters. People of different backgrounds, ages and political beliefs rallied to push for a healthier environment.

They called it Earth Day. Later, as other countries joined in, Earth Day became an annual international event, with 1 billion people taking part in recent years. In this country, it led to creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and laws protecting our air and drinking water, workplace safety, endangered animals and other areas of environmental concern.

Earth Day 2020, on Wednesday, will be different from the others. With the deadly novel coronavirus spanning the world, thousands of big-crowd events, including a rally planned for the Mall in Washington, have been canceled or postponed. In response to the health crisis, activists have planned a digital Earth Day.


(Charles W. Harrity AP Denis Hayes was 25 when he organized the first Earth Day. He says that the event led to progress in protecting the environment but that some environmental issues, such as climate change, have become much worse since 1970.)

For a look at how Earth Day has changed over the years, KidsPost interviewed environmentalist Denis Hayes, who organized the first one in 1970.

“The priorities have changed because we’ve made remarkable progress in addressing the issues of that first Earth Day,” Hayes said. He cited curbs on pesticides and lead in gasoline and household paint, reduced air and water pollution and the growth of public transit.

“On the other hand, climate change, which was not an issue in 1970, has grown worse,” he said. “Every year, the world emits more greenhouse gases than the year before.” These gases build up in the atmosphere, trapping heat and warming the planet.

Hayes, whom Time magazine named a Hero for the Planet, got interested in the environment while growing up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. The clear-cutting of the forests “appalled and outraged” him, and the local paper mill spewed toxins into the air and water.

“I woke up every single morning for 12 years with a sore throat,” he said.

In 1970, at age 25, he organized a national teach-in on the environment. One in 10 Americans, including students from 2,000 colleges and 10,000 elementary and secondary schools, took part. The success spurred Hayes and the environmental movement forward.

“Young people are part of virtually all social movements,” he said, but usually that’s meant those in their 20s. “But in 2019 and 2020, preteens and teens around the world have taken to the streets to protest the climate emergency and to demand solutions that are bold, fast and equitable.”

As two examples, he cited Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, 17, and American Alexandria Villaseñor, 14.

“Teenagers today, aided by social media platforms that spread ideas virally, are playing roles that would have been utterly inconceivable when I was in high school,” Hayes said. “I find great hope in today’s young activists.”


Volunteers on the Mall in Washington secure a huge balloon of the Earth at the Earth Day gathering 20 years ago. Although in-person events have been canceled this year, there are at-home events kids can explore. (Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post)

Big challenges ahead include the spread of nuclear arms and the planet’s growing human population, he said. But “the climate crisis offers our greatest challenge and our greatest opportunity. Unless we act boldly soon, we risk . . . irreversible change for the worse.”

Asked what keeps him going after a half-century at the forefront of the environmental movement, Hayes said: “I can’t imagine a more exciting and rewarding career than working for a healthier, more diverse, more resilient, more just world. . . . Every now and then, sometimes despite overwhelming opposition, I have helped achieve an important victory that assures that the world will be a better place for my daughter, my son-in-law and granddaughter. What could be more fulfilling than that?”

What you can do

Want to learn more about our planet and ways to protect it? The space agency NASA has put together a tool kit with articles, videos, games and activities at nasa.gov/content/earth-day-2020-50th-anniversary-toolkit. Two other sites to look at are spaceplace.nasa.gov/menu/earth and climatekids.nasa.gov.

There are many ideas on the Internet for things to do. Ask an adult if you can search for “Earth Day activities for kids.” A list will pop up with word searches, geography quizzes, puzzles, crafts and other good stuff.

Offline family fun: (1) Hold a scavenger hunt. Write down a dozen things found in nature, then walk around your neighborhood and try to spot them. (2) Have an art contest. Everyone in the family draws a picture for Earth Day and then you pick a winner. (3) If your family has a garden, ask if there is something you can plant or an area you can weed. The Earth (and your parents) will thank you.