History Timeline 1970's

Photo above: President Richard Nixon. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Statue of Secretariat at Belmont Park, 2014, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.


U.S. Timeline - The 1970s

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  • Timeline

  • 1970 - Detail

    April 22, 1970 - The first Earth Day celebration is held with millions of Americans participating in anti-pollution demonstrations. These demonstrations included school children walking to school instead of riding the bus.

    Earth Day 1970

    On April 22, 1970, millions of students and environmentally concerned citizens took part in the first wide spread Earth Day. It had been prompted by the Santa Barbara oil spill of the year before. Various activists and government officials had been organizing the event over that year, including founder John McConnell. McConnell, since 1939 and his work with plastics, began to have great concerns about the environmental impact of new products. A peace activist, his concerns rose through the decades in between, and prompted by the California oil disaster, he proposed to the UNESCO conference in October 1969 that a day to promote the life, beauty, and peace of and on Earth should be held annually. The City of San Franciso complied with a day the next year, March 21, 1970.

    U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin put the official stamp on the event with a more wide-spread scale; on April 22, 1970, a teach-in about environmental issues would be held, focusing on schools and a clean up of the rivers and lands of the United States. Nelson had been prompted by viewing the Santa Barbara oil slick of eight hundred square miles from a plane. Denis Hayes, an environmental and solar advocate, was recruited to be the national coordinator and his staff of eighty-five began formulating a plan for events across the United States.

    What was the impact of the first Earth Day? Two thousand colleges, ten thousand primary and secondary schools, and an estimated twenty million Americans took part. They cleaned up rivers during the expanded Earth Week and walked to school instead of riding the bus. New York's Fifth Avenue was closed for the celebration, and national newscasts focused on activities in Union Square and Central Park. Other cities held celebrations as well, including Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. The events of the first Earth Day have been credited as the impetus for the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

    Earth Day Moving Forward

    Since 1970, Earth Day has been an annual event. With the 1990 twentieth anniversary event, it has taken on international proportions, with celebrations and activities staged in up to one hundred and forty-one nations through the Earth Day Network founded by Denis Hayes.

    With the push toward an international scope in 1990, an estimated two hundred million people were organized. This pushed Earth Day more toward the focus of recycling and political summits on a United Nations scale about the environment, such as the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. Activities have continued on an annual basis, now reaching ninety-three countries, using the April 22nd date as Earth Day to continue the focus on environmental issues.

    Santa Barbara Oil Spill

    On January 28, 1969, the Union Oil platform, one of twelve platforms off the California coast at the time, six miles from Santa Barbara, blew out. The oil spilled into the Santa Barbara Channel and the Pacific Ocean, creating an oil slick containing eighty to one hundred thousand barrels, three million gallons, of oil. Even up to today, this oil spill is ranked the third largest in United States history after the Deepwater Horizon 2010 and Exxon Valdez 1989 spills. Within twenty-four hours, the spill had spread to seventy-five square miles. Beaches along the Santa Barbara coast were filled with oil, marine life killed, along with an estimated three thousand five hundred birds. It took forty-five days to clean up most of the residue; additional oil continued to be seen into 1970.

    The economic impact to the area was large. Commercial fishing was suspended and tourism suffered. Settlements to private businesses from Union Oil added to $6.5 million, to the city of Santa Barbara $4 million, other government entities, $9.5 million, and to commercial fishing interests $1.3 million.

    Platform A still remains in use in the Santa Barbara Channel with the Santa Monica Bay marine terminal, the last remaining offshore terminal in California, built in 1911, still in operation to three hundred tankers per year. Union Oil was founded in 1890 and by the 1960's was the eleventh largest oil company in the United States.

    Photo above: Girl Scout cleaning up the Potomac River during the first Earth Week, 1970, Thomas J. O'Hallorin. Courtesy Library of Congress, U.S. News and World Report Magazine Photograph Collection. Images below: Montage of Earth Day images (left) Union Square New York Earth Day Poster, 1970, Yukihisa Isobe, Westbrook Lithographers. Courtesy Library of Congress. (right) Official Earth Day Flag, 1970, John McConnell, NASA. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Source info: Earthday.org; "A Spill to Remember: Santa Barbara 1969," 2015, Matt King, Healthebay.org; "'The Ocean is Boiling': The Complete Oral History of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill," 2018, Kate Wheeling and Max Upberg, PSMag.com; Wikipedia Commons.

    Earth Day Poster and Flag 1970

    History Photo Bomb