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10 Fascinating Facts About Earth Day

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Every year on April 22, trees are planted, litter is cleaned up, and awareness for the issues plaguing the planet are raised. In honor of the holiday, now in its 48th year, we’ve gathered together 10 fascinating facts about Earth Day.

1. EARTH DAY WAS CREATED THROUGH THE TIRELESS EFFORTS OF WISCONSIN SENATOR GAYLORD NELSON.

Senator Gaylord Nelson arrived in Washington in 1963 looking to make the fledgling conservation movement, sparked in part by Rachel Carson’s New York Times Bestseller Silent Spring, a part of the national discourse. After witnessing the aftermath of an oil spill in California in 1969, Nelson doubled down on his commitment to raising environmental awareness. Drawing inspiration from the energetic anti-war movement of the time, he enlisted support from both sides of the political spectrum, and on April 22, 1970, Earth Day was born.

2. JOHN F. KENNEDY PLAYED A ROLE IN EARLY EFFORTS TO PROMOTE ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION.

In 1963, Gaylord Nelson proposed a "conservation tour" to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, a member of President Kennedy’s "Best and Brightest" cabinet. Schlesinger privately endorsed the idea to the President, while Nelson wrote a direct memo to Kennedy, a bold move for a freshman senator from Wisconsin. Kennedy, however, was incredibly receptive, and on September 24, 1963, JFK embarked on a conservation-themed multi-state tour. The President, accompanied by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, as well as Nelson and a few additional senators, visited 11 states in five days. Nelson was disappointed in the President’s speeches, saying they "didn’t have much sweep or drama to them." In addition, members of the press ignored environmental issues and instead focused their questions on the tense nuclear situation with the Soviet Union. It would be another seven years until Earth Day became a reality.

3. THE FIRST EARTH DAY SAW 20 MILLION AMERICANS TAKE TO THE STREETS.

Children sweeping a city park in New York City on Earth Day, circa 1970s. Getty

The first Earth Day marked a strange combination of boisterous rallies and sober reflection on the state of the planet. Protests, demonstrations, fundraisers, nature walks, speeches, concerts, and every sort of civic gathering imaginable took place at colleges, VFW halls, public squares, and parks across the United States on April 22, 1970. Environmental crusaders found themselves thrust into the limelight, and pop culture icons like poet Allen Ginsberg were asked to speak on behalf of Mother Earth. Some of the more colorful displays of the day included mock trials for polluting objects, like an old Chevrolet, which was sentenced to death by sledgehammer. (The car ultimately survived the beating and was donated to an art class.) In New York City, Earth Day celebrations effectively shut down parts of the city. Twenty thousand people packed into Union Square to see Paul Newman and hear a speech by Mayor John Lindsay, who arrived on an electric bus.

4. THE DATE OF EARTH DAY WAS SPECIFICALLY SELECTED TO MOBILIZE COLLEGE STUDENTS.

To head up the Earth Day project, Senator Nelson enlisted Denis Hayes, then a graduate student at Harvard University. As national coordinator, Hayes recruited a staff of 85 energetic young environmental crusaders and grassroots organizers, along with thousands of field volunteers, in order to promote the fledgling holiday across the nation. The team knew that in order to gain the most traction, college students would need to play a central role, as they did in the Vietnam protests of the era. The date that Hayes selected for the first Earth Day was calculated choice: April 22 on most college campuses falls right between Spring Break and Final Exams.

5. EARTH DAY FACED CRITICISM FROM THE VERY BEGINNING.

According to Grist, the first Earth Day faced staunch opposition from conservative groups like the John Birch Society, who claimed that the event was a thinly veiled attempt to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin. In addition to detractors on the far right of the political spectrum, bleeding-heart environmental crusaders weren’t satisfied either. Earth Day, they claimed, simply served as a distraction from the more pressing social issues of the day. Journalist I.F. Stone said, "The country is slipping into a wider war in Southeast Asia and we’re sitting here talking about litterbugs." Critics of the holiday also point to the trend of "greenwashing," an attempt by corporations with poor environmental track records to appear conscientious if only once a year.

6. EARTH DAY SPARKED AN UNPRECEDENTED SLATE OF ENVIRONMENTAL LEGISLATION.

Students assemble a globe on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in 1995. Getty

With bipartisan support in Congress and thousands of civic demonstrations across the country, support for environmental reform in 1970 was undeniable. According to the EPA, "Public opinion polls indicate that a permanent change in national priorities followed Earth Day 1970. When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment to be an important goal, a 2500 percent increase over 1969." The 1970s saw the passage of the most comprehensive environmental legislation in U.S. history, including the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. In addition, just 8 months after the first Earth Day, Richard Nixon approved the creation of a new organization tasked with monitoring the nation’s natural assets: the Environmental Protection Agency.

7. ALTHOUGH IT BEGAN AS AN AMERICAN MOVEMENT, EARTH DAY IS NOW AN INTERNATIONAL PHENOMENON ...

In 1990, Earth Day expanded to include countries and peoples across the globe, with 200 million people in 141 nations getting involved. A decade later, at the turn of the new millennium, Earth Day shed light on the emerging Clean Energy movement and expanded its reach, spreading to 184 countries with the help of 5000 environmental organizations. Global activities included a massive traveling drum chain in Gabon, Africa and an unprecedented gathering of hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. According to Earth Day Network, after 40 years, more than 1 billion people participate in Earth Day activities, making it the largest secular civic event in the world.

8. ... AND INTERNATIONALLY, IT'S KNOWN AS INTERNATIONAL MOTHER EARTH DAY.

Thai students paint a wall at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok for Earth Day, 2005. Getty

Earth Day is now observed around the world, albeit under a different name: In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly decided to designate April 22 as International Mother Earth Day. The symbol of Mother Earth serves as a common metaphor and representation of our planet in many countries and cultures. In the United States, the holiday is still commonly referred to as Earth Day.

9. IN 2009, NASA PLANTED A HISTORIC "MOON TREE" TO CELEBRATE EARTH DAY.

During the Apollo 14 moon mission in 1971, astronaut Stuart Roosa brought with him hundreds of tree seeds including Loblolly Pine, Sycamore, Sweetgum, Redwood, and Douglas Fir. Roosa was a former smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service, and he transported the seeds in his personal effects as a tribute to his former employer. Roosa and his seeds orbited the Moon 34 times in the command module Kitty Hawk. Scientists were curious whether or not exposure to the microgravity of space would impact the growth of these seeds when returned to Earth.

The experiment seemed like a lost cause when, during the post-mission decontamination process, the seed canisters broke open and the seeds were thought to be useless. However, most of the tree seeds were still fit for germination and were successfully planted and cultivated. These trees were planted around National Monuments, as well as in sites all over the world. After decades of growing side-by-side with their Earth cousins, the Moon Trees showed no differences at all. On Earth Day 2009, NASA, in partnership with the United States National Arboretum and American Forests, planted a second generation Moon Sycamore on the arboretum’s grounds in Washington, D.C.

10. IN PREPARATION FOR EARTH DAY'S 50TH ANNIVERSARY IN 2020, A NEW ENVIRONMENTAL THEME WILL BE ANNOUNCED EVERY YEAR FOR THE NEXT FIVE YEARS.

For Earth Day 2016, the environmental theme of choice was trees. The Earth Day Network has announced the ambitious plan to plant 7.8 billion trees over the next five years. Trees are essential tools in the fight for a cleaner, sustainable environment. According to the Earth Day Network, in one year a single acre of mature trees absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide produced by driving the average consumer car 26,000 miles. Nearly 8 billion may seem like a daunting number, but similarly ambitious plantings have been undertaken in the past. Earth Day 2011 saw the planting of over a million new trees in Afghanistan.

The theme for Earth Day 2017 is Environmental and Climate Literacy and seeks to increase knowledge amongst voters and work to advocate for climate laws and policies that will accelerate green technology, jobs, and environmental protection. 

This story originally ran in 2016.

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10 Other Mother’s Days from Around the World
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After her mother passed away in 1905, Anna Jarvis resolved to dedicate a day to her mother, and mothers everywhere. Little did she know, and evidently much to her chagrin, Mother’s Day fast became a commercial phenomenon. Its popularity spread worldwide and many countries, particularly in the Western world, adopted the second Sunday in May as their official Mother’s Day. But not every nation followed suit—perhaps to the chagrin of their local flower companies. In fact, Mother’s Day in many countries has little or nothing to do with Anna Jarvis’s creation, nor does it always occur in May. These are just a few of those other Mother’s Days.

1. UK // MOTHERING SUNDAY, FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT

The name may sound strikingly similar to its American counterpart, but the origins of Mothering Sunday are quite different. By most historical accounts, it was the Church of England that created Mothering Sunday to honor the mothers of England, and later to commemorate the “Mother Church” in all its spiritual nurturing glory. Hundreds of years ago, Christians were expected to make at least one return to their mother church each year. In other words, Mothering Sunday was the ultimate guilt trip to visit the woman or entity that gave them life. Was that so much to ask? The fourth Sunday of Lent became the designated day to make this journey, and remains the go-to holiday to celebrate Moms to this day.

2. THAILAND // MOTHER'S DAY, AUGUST 12

Her Majesty Sirikit the Queen of Thailand is also considered the mother of all her Thai subjects. In light of her royal maternal status, the Thai government made her birthday, August 12, Thailand’s official Mother’s Day in 1976. It remains a national holiday, celebrated countrywide with fireworks and candle-lighting. In related holidays, Father’s Day in Thailand falls on the current King’s birthday, December 5.

3. BOLIVIA // MOTHER'S DAY, MAY 27

During the struggle for independence from Spain in the early 19th century, many of the country's fathers, sons, and husbands were injured and killed on the battlefields. As the history is told to Bolivian students, one group of women from Cochabamba refused to stand idly by; on May 27, they banded together to fight the Spanish Army on Coronilla Hill. Though hundreds died in battle, the legacy of their contributions lives on thanks to a national law passed in the 1920s making the day on which the “Heroinas of Coronilla” took to the streets national Mother’s Day.

4. INDONESIA// MOTHER'S DAY OR WOMEN'S DAY, DECEMBER 22

Made official in 1953 by its president, Indonesia's Mother’s Day falls on the anniversary of the First Indonesian Women’s Congress (1928). The first convening of women in a governmental body is still considered pivotal in launching organized women’s movements throughout Indonesia. The holiday was created to celebrate the contributions of women to Indonesian society.

5. MIDDLE EAST (VARIOUS) // MOTHER'S DAY OR SPRING EQUINOX, MARCH 21

Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin introduced the idea of a Mother’s Day to his home country, and it quickly spread throughout much of the region. Inspired by a story of a thankless widow ignored by an ungrateful son, Amin and his brother Ali successfully proposed a day in Egypt to honor all mothers. They decided the first day of spring, March 21, was most appropriate to celebrate the ultimate givers of life. It was first celebrated in Egypt in 1956, and is still observed throughout the region from Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates to Iraq.

6. NEPAL // MOTHER PILGRIMAGE FORTNIGHT OR MATA TIRTHA SNAN, LAST DAY OF THE MAISHAKH MONTH (USUALLY BETWEEN LATE APRIL AND EARLY MAY)

Stemming from an ancient Hindu tradition, this festival of honoring mothers is still commonly celebrated in Nepal. The holiday honors both the living and the dead equally. Traditionally, those honoring mothers who have passed away make a pilgrimage to the Mata Tirtha ponds near Kathmandu. A large carnival is also held in the Mata Tirtha village. Children show their mothers appreciation with sweets and gifts.

7. ISRAEL // FAMILY DAY OR THE HOLIDAY FORMERLY KNOWN AS MOTHER'S DAY, 30TH DAY OF SHEVAT (USUALLY FEBRUARY)

Henrietta Szold never had any children of her own, but that didn’t stop her from touching the lives of many young ones. Szold played an active role in the Youth Aliya organization, through which she helped protect many Jewish children from the horrors of the Holocaust. This earned her a reputation as the “mother” of all children. In the 1950s, an 11-year-old girl named Nechama Biedermann wrote to the children’s publication Haaretz Shelanu proposing they make the date of Szold’s death Israel’s national Mother’s Day. The newspaper readily agreed, as did the rest of the country. Despite the shift to a more gender-balanced Family Day, the holiday’s popularity has waned over the years.

8. ETHIOPIA // MOTHER'S DAY OR ANTROSHT, WHEN THE RAINY SEASON ENDS (OCTOBER/NOVEMBER)

Rather than tying themselves down to a specific date, Ethiopians wait out the wet season then trek home for a large, three-day family celebration. This feast is known as “Antrosht.” Unlike some western Mother’s Days, the mother plays a key role in preparing the traditional meals for the festival.

9. FRANCE // MOTHER'S DAY OR FÊTE DES MÈRES, LAST SUNDAY IN MAY

Celebrating a few Sundays later than the rest of the world feels so, well, French. However, according to one blogger, they may have beat all of us to the punch—sort of. France has a storied history of attempts to create a national Mother’s Day. Napoleon tried to mandate a national maternal holiday at the turn of the 19th century. But things ended up not working out so well for him and his holiday. More than a century later, Lyon held its own Mother’s Day celebration to honor women who lost sons to the First World War. It was not until May 24, 1950 that the Fête des Mères became an officially decreed holiday.

(The holiday is mandated to occur on the last Sunday in May. However, if that Sunday is also the Pentecost, then Mother’s Day is pushed to the first Sunday in June.)

10. NICARAGUA // MOTHER'S DAY OR DÍA DE MADRE, MAY 30

In the 1940s, President General Anastasio Somoza Garcia declared Mother’s Day in honor of the birthday of his mother-in-law. Despite its brown-nosing origins, it remains a big deal in Nicaragua.

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What's the Story Behind Cinco de Mayo?
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Cinco de Mayo, or May 5, is recognized around the country as a time to celebrate Mexico’s cultural heritage. Like a lot of days earmarked to commemorate a specific idea or event, its origins can be a little murky. Who started it, and why?

The holiday was originally set aside to commemorate Mexico’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The two had gotten into a dispute after newly-elected Mexico president Benito Juárez tried to help ease the country’s financial woes by defaulting on European loans. Unmoved by their plight, France attempted to seize control of their land. The Napoleon III-led country sent 6000 troops to Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town en route to Mexico City, and anticipated an easy victory.

After an entire day of battle that saw 2000 Mexican soldiers take 500 enemy lives against only 100 casualties, France retreated. That May 5, Mexico had proven itself to be a formidable and durable opponent. (The victory would be short-lived, as the French would eventually conquer Mexico City. In 1866, Mexican and U.S. forces were able to drive them out.)

To celebrate, Juárez declared May 5, or Cinco de Mayo, to be a national holiday. Puebla began acknowledging the date, with recognition spreading throughout Mexico and in the Latino population of California, which celebrated victory over the same kind of oppressive regime facing minorities in Civil War-era America. In fact, University of California at Los Angeles professor David Hayes-Bautista cites his research into newspapers of the era as evidence that Cinco de Mayo really took off in the U.S. due to the parallels between the Confederacy and the monarchy Napoleon III had planned to install.

Cinco de Mayo gained greater visibility in the U.S. in the middle part of the 20th century thanks to the Good Neighbor Policy, a political movement promoted by Franklin Roosevelt beginning in 1933, which encouraged friendly relations between countries.  

There’s a difference between a day of remembrance and a corporate clothesline, however. Cinco de Mayo was co-opted for the latter beginning in the 1970s, when beer and liquor companies decided to promote consumption of their products while enjoying the party atmosphere of the date—hence the flowing margaritas. And while it may surprise some Americans, Cinco de Mayo isn’t quite as big a deal in Mexico as it can be in the States. While Mexican citizens recognize it, it’s not a federal holiday: Celebrants can still get to post offices and banks. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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