On April 22, 1970, the first observation of Earth Day took place, a massive series of gatherings, demonstrations and discussions across the U.S. that many credit as the birth of the modern environmental movement. An oil spill off the California coast was the event that triggered U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson to launch Earth Day – but concerns about environmental health and the detrimental effects of industrialization were growing, over issues such as pesticide use, oil spills, poor air quality, pollution, loss of wilderness to development and declining biodiversity. Heralded as a resounding success, the first Earth Day resulted in the implementation of a number of U.S. environmental policies, and the movement quickly went global.
Yet today, the environmental challenges we face dwarf those that touched off that first celebration. And the planet we honor on Earth Day is a far different place from that of just four decades ago.
World population has almost doubled, from 3.7 billion to 6.9 billion. The amount of land paved over to build houses, cities and roads has increased 75 percent, from 228 million hectares to 400 million global hectares, according to Global Footprint Network’s 2009 National Footprint Accounts. The amount of productive forest land required for fuelwood, for paper and timber products, has gone up 53 percent to close to 2 billion global hectares. The productive land and sea area we need for food – for fishing, crops and grazing our livestock – has increased 69 percent, to 5.6 billion global hectares.
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