As the 1960s moved into the 1970s flower power and the hippie culture were at their height. Love and peace were very much the order of the day but this was also the time of the Vietnam War that had dominated the lives of countless American families for the last decade.
What had begun as something of a crusade to stop the spread of communism had turned into a war of attrition with a death toll that never seemed to stop rising. Pictures of returning body bags filled the media and for those who were spared death, there were many more who were maimed in body or mind.
To fill the gap, the US Government introduced conscription - the notorious draft, but by then there was already a very active peace movement. Concerted protest was growing in many quarters, particularly from among the student population and the draft had the effect of galvanising this protest.
Parallel to all this the Black Power Movement was at its height. Two years earlier Martin Luther King, one of the heroes of the Black Civil Rights Movement, had been assassinated and the country was still reeling from the aftermath of this. Although segregation was slowly coming to an end, racial discrimination was still rife in the Southern States of the US and the thought that there might one day be a black President was still beyond the wildest imaginings of most people.
In the midst of this atmosphere of protest there was one area where there was still little indication of any concern and that was the environment. Massive V8 sedans continued to run on leaded petrol and their status made them a favoured means of transport. The smoke, sludge and industrial effluent that filled the atmosphere were simply regarded as by-products of a successful society. In fact air pollution was accepted as a symbol of prosperity.
Although environmental concern may have generally been limited, it was there, even if it was some way below the surface. In 1962 Rachel Carson published a book about the dangers of pesticides called Silent Spring. When this jumped into the best-seller list it began to raise public awareness, but there was no real environment movement until 1970 when Earth Day came into being.
Credit for the idea goes to the somewhat exotically named Gaylord Nelson, a US Senator from Wisconsin. He had been appalled by the lack of government action following a massive oil spill off the coast of California and inspired by the vigorous student anti-war movement he set out to capture some of their energy and channel it into raising public awareness of environmental issues.
Gaylord Nelson carefully chose 22nd April for his awareness day. This was chosen because he wanted a large student support and this date did not coincide with any exams or spring breaks, neither did it conflict with any major religious holidays. Also it was late enough in the spring to have a reasonable chance of good weather. In addition, 22nd April 1970 was a Wednesday and the middle of the week seemed like a good day.
An astonishing 20 million people took part in the first US Earth Day in 1970 and as a result interest in environmental affairs really stated to take off., leading to the eventual creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.
Subsequently many people thought that a more appropriate day to observe Earth Day would be at the time of the March Equinox and in 1978 American anthropologist Margaret Mead added her support for the Equinox Earth Day. In her view having an Earth Day at the time of the March Equinox would make it much easier to achieve a shared planetary event. However, in spite of such high power intervention, there was no change and 22nd April has become a permanent fixture.
In 1990, for its 20th anniversary, it was decided that Earth Day should go global and 200 million people were mobilised in 141 countries.
For the millennium it was decided to focus attention on global warming and the push for clean energy. 5000 environmental groups in 184 countries combined to reach out to hundreds of millions of people. For the first time the internet was the principal organising tool.
One feature was a Peace Climb of Mount Everest involving climbers from the United States, China and the Soviet Union. This was the first time in history that climbers from these three nations had taken part in a joint expedition. With the help of support groups along the way the climbers managed to collect over two tons of rubbish that had been left on the mountain by previous climbers.
By now this growth in international involvement had captured the interest of the United Nations and in 2009 the UN General Assembly established an International Mother Earth Day. This was endorsed by over 50 member states and was first celebrated on 22nd April 2010 to coincide with Earth Day.
International Mother Earth Day recognises that the Earth and its ecosystems are our home and that it is necessary to promote harmony between nature and the Earth. The term "Mother Earth" is used because it reflects the interdependence that exists among human beings, all other living species and the planet on which we all live.
Welcoming the day, the President of the General Assembly, Miguel d'Escoto Brockman commented that International Mother Earth Day promoted a view of the Earth as the entity that sustains all living things found in nature. He went on to say that inclusiveness was at the heart of the day, since one of the causes that is uniting people around the world is the shared responsibility to rebuild our troubled relationship with nature.
Although these are brave words, the fact remains that only 50 of the UN member states actually endorsed International Mother Earth Day and in Earth Day's 43rd year its organisers remain frustrated by the continuing failure of successive world governments to take positive steps to preserve the environment.
An excellent resource for the day can be found at http://www.kars4kids.org/earthday/.