The history of Earth Day began in Santa Barbara in early 1969, when an oil platform six miles offshore of the idyllic beach town on the central coast of California blew out, spewing some 100,000 barrels of crude into the Pacific. It was the largest oil spill in US history at the time (today it is the third-largest), and catalyzed the modern environmental movement.
Over the next year, Gaylord Nelson, a US senator from Wisconsin, marshaled the personnel, resources, and political capital to create what the politician called a “national teach-in on the environment.” The first Earth Day was held on April 1970, and its impact on public education and policy was tremendous. Millions of Americans took to the streets to demand environmental improvements and, according to Earth Day Network, “by the end of that year, the first Earth Day had led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts.” Those laws remain the bedrock of environmental regulation today.
Perhaps more important was the effort that began in 1990 to bring Earth Day to the entire Earth, and to start honing its focus towards the Earth’s biggest impending challenge: climate change.
It was a success. After averaging just 38 media mentions a year from 1970 to 1989, “Earth Day” was referenced over 5,550 times by the press on its 20th anniversary in 1990.