Earthrise // Source: 100 Photographs

Earth Day: Origins  

A Journey Through the Decades

It’s been over five decades since Apollo 8 Astronaut, William Anders, captured an image of Earth peaking over the Moon’s horizon, more commonly known as Earthrise. This iconic photograph inspired a new age of appreciation for our planet. Two years later, the first Earth Day, April 22nd, 1970, was born. This historic day marks the birth of the modern environmental movement. 

Spring of 1970 – A shift in attitudes, values, and beliefs of 20 million Americans embodied through a movement of consciousness about our planet. 

Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, U.S., created Earth Day as a way to give environmental issues a voice and put them on the national agenda. In December 1970, Congress authorized the creation of a new federal agency to tackle environmental issues – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Since then, efforts to tackle environmental degradation and climate change have been adopted worldwide from introducing policy and legislation, to funding clean technologies and renewable energy, to manufacturing biodegradable materials. Here, we look at the honouring of this day through the decades. 

News headline from the first Earth Day, 1970 // Source: ETEE

In the decades leading up to the first ever Earth Day, industrialization took over North America and other parts of the world. Manufacturing (1900s), mining (1930s), transportation (1950s) and retailing (1970s), along with rapid urbanization and consumer culture, all played a part in developing our world as we know it today. North America was consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through massive and inefficient automobiles. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of the consequences from either the law or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Mainstream North America remained largely oblivious to environmental concerns and how a polluted environment seriously threatens human health.

1980 – In the U.S., this year saw significant environmental legislative achievements. Just 10 years after the first Earth Day, government protections over the environment drastically increased. By 1980, the following U.S. government acts were passed: Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. 

On September 11th, Paul Tinari, a graduate student from Queen’s University, launched the first Canadian Earth Day. Flora MacDonald, then MP for Kingston, Ontario and the islands, officially opened Earth Day Week, encouraging MPs across the country to declare a cross-Canada annual Earth Day. 

Through the 70s and 80s, Earth Day in North America focused heavily on pollution. By Earth Day 1990, organizers and environmental agencies shifted their focus to climate change. 

1990 – Earth Day goes global, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries and lifting environmental issues onto the world stage. 

The activities of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990 presented a huge boost to recycling efforts and paved the way for the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. The ‘Rio Declarations’ laid out 15 principles recognizing the impact of human activities on sustainability and committing to sustainability goals. In 1997, the United Nations Kyoto Protocol was signed setting commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide as well as establish the connection between human activities and climate change.

In Canada, this was the start of Earth Day Canada (Jour de la Terre Canada), combining efforts from both France and Canada, and the internationalization of Earth Day. Since 1995, Quebec has celebrated Earth Day through raising awareness on environmental issues. 

Earth Day Canada Logo // Source:

2000 – Earth Day goes digital. Through the power of connectivity, hundreds of millions of people in 184 countries celebrate the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, with a focus on clean energy. 

By leveraging the power of the Digital Revolution, Earth Day in the new millennium meant that environmental activities and initiatives spread faster to many parts of the world. Suddenly, awareness became the greatest tool in the fight against climate change. 

2010 – This was a challenging time for the environmental community as they faced climate deniers, well-funded oil enthusiasts with a not-so-environmentally-friendly agenda, a disinterested public, and neutral politicians. The Earth Day Network repositioned Earth Day as a day for environmental activism as the right time. On Earth Day 2010, over 250,000 people participated in a rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of millions of people observed Earth Day around the globe. Climate activism gained serious momentum. 

In 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement was drafted, going beyond the Kyoto Protocol, by setting a goal of achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050. In Canada, the French and Quebec teams joined forces to take the Earth Day movement to a new level for the French-speaking world. 

In 2018, Greta Thunberg acted as a voice for youth, by starting a protest in front of the Swedish parliament building, vowing to continue until the Swedish government met the carbon emissions target agreed by world leaders in Paris, in 2015. Students around the world quickly began following her lead, staging large protests and demanding change.

Greta Thunberg’s Climate Strike // Source: DW

In 2019, Earth Day Canada formed an alliance with EcoKids to enable environmental initiatives to be carried out across all provinces and territories. That year, I remember attending a climate rally in Ottawa and feeling empowered by the movement as a young adult living in the world today. 

2020 – Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The social and cultural movements that we saw in the 1970s rose back up again as we were hit with one of the largest crises of our time: COVID-19. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic transcended almost everything in 2020 (the good and the bad), including the environment, from cancelled summits on climate and biodiversity, to a temporary dip in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, to greater awareness of the link between human health and climate change. As climate rallies and events were cancelled, Earth Day quickly pivoted from mobilizing millions on the ground to raising hundreds of millions of voices digitally. Fittingly, in Canada, the Earth Day theme was climate action with the main message being: “keeping our distance at home, but taking action for the planet together”. Now, we’re in the slow and gradual transition to a green recovery. 

Present day – The fight for our planet continues with increasing urgency. A\J has partnered with Earth Day Canada to shine a light on Earth Day celebrations through the years and explore the evolution of this day through this editorial series. This Earth Day will be spent at home, and Earth Day Canada has put together some practical, creative, and smart ideas for #EarthDayAtHome. The Earth Day Canada 2021 theme is Take Care of the Planet. The official campaign features “animals that have to clean up their polluted environments themselves”. The goal is to raise awareness about the urgency we are facing, and to encourage Canadians to #TakeCareOfThePlanet every day because it’s our responsibility to do so. 

Earth Day Canada’s #TakeCareOfThePlanet 2021 Campaign // Source:

Stay tuned for next week’s article for more about what Earth Day means for us this year, and how we can and should be celebrating the planet in the present day.

This article is part of a 3-part editorial series, in collaboration with Earth Day Canada, titled ‘The Past, Present, and Future of Earth Day’. Check out the full series here!


Teo Guzu is a Master’s in Environment and Sustainability student with a focus on policy and research. Her background is in the field of Sociology and Global Development Studies where she developed an interest in how climate change disproportionately affects different communities. Her interests lie in plastics and waste management, conservation, and clean technology. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family/friends and her dog Charlie, reading, writing, and watching docu-series on various topics.