How Earth Day Began: With Somber Reflection, and a Few Dump-Ins

TIME

Born from what TIME described in 1970 as a casual suggestion by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day was meant as neither protest nor celebration, but rather as “a day for serious discussion of environmental problems.”

What surprised Nelson — and others — was how much enthusiasm the idea engendered. On this day, April 22, 45 years ago, nearly 20 million Americans took Nelson up on his suggestion and turned out for the inaugural Earth Day events. These cropped up all over the country, on college campuses and in public places — including Central Park and New York’s Fifth Avenue, which was closed to traffic for two hours while 100,000 people staged a quiet, contemplative parade.

A dissonant combination of festivity and somber reflection pervaded the holiday. Environmentalists found themselves transformed into celebrities for a day, suddenly overrun with invitations to share their grim prognoses for the planet. As…

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