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Earth Day 2012

Students pose for a photo with a globe during a campaign to mark the Earth Day in a middle school in Dexing, Jiangxi province, China (file photo).

Earth Day is an opportunity to reflect on the impact of humans on the earth, and to consider how we as individuals can mitigate it.

On April 22, the United States observes Earth Day, an opportunity to reflect on the impact of humans on the earth, and to consider how we as individuals could mitigate it.

The first Earth Day was planned as a teach-in, a day to inform about environmental issues. Earth Day founder, Senator Gaylord Nelson, an environmental activist who was outraged by lack of political response to gross environmental degradation evident throughout the country, said that he was “convinced that all we need to do to bring an overwhelming insistence of the new generation that we stem the tide of environmental disaster is to present the facts clearly and dramatically. ... Every university should set aside one day in the school year-the same day across the Nation-for the teach-in."

His plan worked: over 20 million people turned up for Senator Nelson’s first Earth Day teach-in on April 22, 1970. From that day, the movement grew spontaneously, creating its own momentum.

Gaylord Nelson’s ideals of environmental responsibility are as resonant now as they were 42 years ago. Today, people all over the world participate in activities aimed toward improving the environment. They plant trees, clean up public areas and roadsides, and learn how to lead a more environmentally responsible life style. And as Senator Nelson intended, many take their concerns to their political representatives by signing petitions calling for stronger action on environmental issues.

The first Earth Day is considered by many to be the birth of the modern environmental movement. That same year President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency. Then in 1972, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act became law, followed a year later by the Endangered Species Act.

But, as President Barack Obama said two years ago, "the true story of the environmental movement is not about the laws that have been passed. It’s about the citizens who have come together time and time again to demand cleaner air, healthier drinking water and safer food – and who have demanded that their representatives in government hold polluters accountable."