What is Earth Week?

Earth Week, April 16-22, originated in Philadelphia in 1970. It was created by an ad hoc committee of students, professionals, leaders of grass roots organizations and businessmen concerned about the environment and inspired by Senator Gaylord Nelson’s call for a national environmental teach-in (see History section) which became known as Earth Day. The Committee quickly came to the conclusion, however, that devoting only one day to the environment would not provide a sufficiently large canvas on which to paint a comprehensive picture of the environmental issues confronting mankind. Thus Earth Week was born.

For many people who are now over 50 years old, their principle memory of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 was of the one hour prime time CBS Special Report with Walter Cronkite on Earth Day. You can see the whole Special Report below.

“[Earth Week in Philadelphia] was an Earth Day success story, a major demonstration in a major city, but it did not come easily.”

– CBS News, Walter Cronkite

After its launch in late 1969 at the University of Pennsylvania Design School by Regional Planning graduate students, the membership and activities of the Earth Week Committee expanded daily and exponentially, reaching a climax during Earth Week and Earth Day itself.

As news of the Committee’s activities and programs spread, fueled by intense press coverage, virtually every segment of society became involved. Young people initially took the lead, but soon blue-haired suburban garden club ladies enthusiastically joined in, as did many Christian, Jewish and Buddhist clerics whose sabbath sermons sought to reconcile the conflict between the biblical themes of “multiplying and subduing the earth” and man’s stewardship of the land (see CBS coverage).

Politicians threw themselves at the organization, offering to appear and speak at virtually any Earth Week event, desperate to become associated with a movement that seemed to cut across all racial, economic and political lines. Earth Week represented, after all, a virtual bonanza of potential votes, many of them from individuals not previously politically active. Eventually labor, peace activists, and ultimately, even the black community—which had initially been suspicious because they feared it diverted attention from Civil Rights issues—weighed in. By Spring, the phones in the UPenn Fine Arts faculty lounge, where the group was headquartered, were ringing off the hook from morning til night. Each day more and more calls had to go unanswered until only the most urgent calls could be brought to the attention of the Committee.

Earth Day groups across the country soon began competing for speakers of national importance who might be willing to travel to and appear at their Earth Day events. Ultimately U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie, Author of the historic Clean Air Act of 1970 and sponsor of pending landmark water pollution legislation, agreed to be the keynote speaker on Earth Day in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Next to Nelson, himself, Muskie was the most prominent environmental leader of the era and was widely perceived to be the most likely individual to win the Democratic nomination for President and run against Nixon in 1972 (this was before New Hampshire ’72).

Soon the national media began to call, led by senior CBS News Producer, Bernard Birnbaum, who came to Philadelphia to cover the story.  Not to be outdone, the NBC Today Show invited Philadelphia Earth Week Committee members to go to New York and appear on two mornings of their own full week of NBC Today Show coverage of Earth Day events.

Not knowing who would ultimately agree to come to Philadelphia during Earth Week to speak, the Committee issued multiple invitations for speakers. To their surprise almost everyone who was invited by the Committee accepted. Among them were consumer protection activist and author of “Unsafe at any Speed,” Ralph Nader; Landscape Architect and author of “Design with Nature,” Ian McHarg; Nobel prize-winning Harvard Biochemist, George Wald; U.S. Senate Minority Leader, Hugh Scott; bacteriologist, Rene Dubois; climatologist Helmet Landsberg; economist, Kenneth Boulding; artist, writer and sociologist, John McHale; population biologist and author of The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich; Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, Ralph Lapp; hydrologist Luna Leopold; Urban Planner and author Lewis Mumford; Philosopher and author, Alan Watts; Ecologist, Kenneth Watt; Poet, Allen Ginsberg; and Frank Herbert, author of Dune.

Faced with an embarrassment of riches—more speakers than there were Earth Week events in Philadelphia at which they could speak, the Earth Week Committee enlisted other area Universities and colleges in the region, including Swarthmore, Temple and Villanova, each of which agreed to hold several public events during Earth Week where speakers could appear. The first Earth Week was an unqualified success.

The only city that had an Earth Week in 1970 was Philadelphia, but many communities now celebrate a full week of activities focused on environmental issues, usually starting, as happened in Philadelphia forty years ago, on April 16th and culminating on Earth Day, April 22.

Learn more about the History of Earth Week