San Francisco Department of the Environment

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The History of Earth Day

Each year, Earth Day, April 22, marks the anniversary of what many consider to be the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970.

Earth Day, 1970

Earth Day 1970 capitalized on the emerging consciousness of its era, channeling the energy of the anti-war protest movement and bringing environmental concerns front and center. 

The idea for Earth Day came from founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the environmental destruction caused by the massive 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Outraged by the devastation from the oil spill, Nelson proposed a “national teach-in on the environment” to be observed by every university campus in the U.S. Nelson persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the United States.

On the 22nd of April, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.

Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. It is now observed in 175 countries, and coordinated by the nonprofit, Earth Day Network, according to whom Earth Day is now "the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a half billion people every year."

The San Francisco Department of the Environment was born out of the same common environmental values that brought concerned citizens together for the first Earth Day in 1970.

In 1993, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors created the Commission on the Environment and charged it with developing a Sustainability Plan for San Francisco. The original Commission was replaced by a seven-member Commission appointed by the Mayor as a result of a voter initiative passed in 1996, which also created the Department of the Environment. A citywide effort, involving hundreds of San Franciscans, culminated in the adoption of the City’s Sustainability Plan by the Board of Supervisors in 1997. The Department was initially responsible only for public outreach, implementing the City's Integrated Pest Management Program, and implementing Green Building.  By 2000, the Department had eight employees, and added a Clean Air Program and an Energy Program. In 2001, the Department grew to more than 30 employees after integrating all the functions of the Solid Waste Management Program, including toxics reduction and recycling.  Today SF Environment has more than 115 employees, and has active programs in the area of Climate, Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency, Clean Air Transportation, Outreach, Environmental Justice, Green Jobs (Environment Now), Zero Waste, Toxic Reduction, School Education, Green Building, and Urban Forestry.

The fight for a clean environment continues in a climate of increasing urgency, as the ravages of climate change become more manifest every day. We invite you to be a part of Earth Day 2012 and help us write many more victories and successes into our history.

Update: April 16, 2012

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