A History of Earth Day on College Campuses

Student activists inspired the first Earth Day. Learn how colleges shaped Earth Day and how students pushed for environmental changes both on and off campus.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Updated March 3, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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A History of Earth Day on College Campuses


Did you know student activists inspired the first Earth Day in 1970?

Since then, colleges and universities have played a key role in the environmental movement. From staging protests to educating the community, campuses have taken center stage on Earth Day for more than 50 years.

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What's more, Earth Day helped galvanize environmentalism on campuses. After 1970, students and colleges began forming environmentalist groups. Many schools even added academic programs in sustainability and environmental justice.

But how did colleges organize the first Earth Day? How did Earth Day evolve on campuses? And what does Earth Day look like at colleges today?

The First Earth Day

The '60s ushered in a heightened awareness of environmental issues. In 1962, marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring," a scathing indictment of pesticides and the dangers of pollution.

Then, in 1969, one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history ravaged the coast of Santa Barbara. That same year, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire due to pollution.

Just a year later, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin organized the first Earth Day, taking inspiration from college students. Earth Day was meant to serve as a "teach-in" on environmental topics on a national scale. The strategies used by the anti-war movement could also motivate people to take on air and water pollution.

Nelson proposed the idea during a fall 1969 conference in Seattle. "The wire services carried the story from coast to coast," he later recalled. "The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters."

Nelson turned to activist Denis Hayes, who had served as student body president at Stanford. Together, Nelson and Hayes organized the first Earth Day as a teach-in, with colleges hosting speakers and forums to bring attention to environmental issues.

So why is Earth Day April 22? The organizers wanted a weekday that fell between spring break and finals week in order to maximize student participation.

Soon, hundreds of colleges began organizing rallies and protests. Realizing the idea could spread beyond campuses, Hayes put together a group of 85 people to create community events.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day — a whopping 10% of the U.S. population.

The First Campus Earth Day Events

Colleges and universities around the country embraced the first Earth Day with an enthusiastic commitment to education and awareness.

Over 1,500 campuses held teach-ins on the first Earth Day in 1970. Speakers aimed to educate audiences about the harm caused by pollution, and college students visited local schools to share environmental messages with younger learners.

At Binghamton University in New York, the Save Our World committee banned cars from campus for the first Earth Day. That ban would draw attention to the dangers of air pollution. The campus also held a "plant-in" for planting trees, and students marched on the university's heating plant to demand environmental regulations.

In Philadelphia, Penn students organized a rally in Fairmount Park that attracted 30,000 people. Speakers included activist Ralph Nader and poet Allen Ginsberg. Meanwhile, San Diego State students put together forums and presentations on topics like recycling, energy production, and pollution in San Diego Bay.

At some schools, students even put automobiles on trial for the crime of polluting the air.

Many colleges created new environmental clubs to advocate for the environment. Members of these clubs later marched across campus, held demonstrations, and helped organize future Earth Days.

Thousands of people march along Fifth Avenue in New York City in support of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
Thousands of people march along Fifth Avenue in New York City in support of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. (Image Credit: Bettmann / Contributor / Bettmann / Getty Images)

Earth Day Goes Global

From the very first Earth Day in 1970 — when 20 million Americans participated — Earth Day made a major impact. Within months of the historic event, the U.S. government established the Environmental Protection Agency. It would later go on to pass critical environmental legislation.

By 1990, Earth Day events were attracting 200 million people from over 140 countries.

And colleges continued to celebrate Earth Day. In 1990 — the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day — students at Albion College organized a day of speeches, documentary screenings, and an "all species" parade.

Called "No Extinction Without Representation," the parade consisted of Albion Elementary School students dressing up as their favorite animals and marching alongside college students and faculty.

By 2000, Earth Day had grown to 184 countries. That year, the event emphasized clean energy.

Colleges played a major role in the holiday's growth, with teach-ins spurring action both on and off campus, according to Will Callaway, the national campaign director for Earth Day Network.

"[Campus teach-ins and demonstrations] brought about a movement that I think has been sustained on campuses across the country, and globally now to some extent," said Callaway in an interview with the University of Florida's Office of Sustainability.

Earth Day on College Campuses Today

At many U.S. colleges, Earth Day is more than a single day. Some campuses host Earth Week or even Earth Month.

"When I was younger, I would celebrate Earth Day by cleaning up trash around my house and neighborhood," MIT student Mimi Wahid told the MIT Office of Sustainability in 2021. "As I've gotten older … I've come to understand that Earth Day is about more than my own backyard."

Today, many colleges link Earth Day with environmental justice and sustainability. As Colorado State University Sustainability Commission co-chair Carol Dollard relates in an interview with the campus paper, "It's important to realize that the idea of sustainability as a movement has in recent years embraced social justice as an important piece of the whole picture."

Earth Day started as an environmental awareness movement on college campuses — but it quickly grew into an annual event that now welcomes an estimated 1 billion participants each year.


To learn more about Earth Day events in your community, visit EarthDay.org or check out your college's events calendar.


Feature Image: NurPhoto / Contributor / NurPhoto / Getty Images

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