The Genius of Earth Day

How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation

Adam Rome

Hill and Wang

The first Earth Day is the most famous little-known event in modern American history. Because we still pay ritual homage to the planet every April 22, everyone knows something about Earth Day. Some people may also know that Earth Day 1970 made the environmental movement a major force in American political life. But no one has told the whole story before.

     The story of the first Earth Day is inspiring: it had a power, a freshness, and a seriousness of purpose that are difficult to imagine today. Earth Day 1970 created an entire green generation. Thousands of Earth Day organizers and participants decided to devote their lives to the environmental cause. Earth Day 1970 helped to build a lasting eco-infrastructure—lobbying organizations, environmental beats at newspapers, environmental-studies programs, ecology sections in bookstores, community ecology centers.

     In The Genius of Earth Day, the prizewinning historian Adam Rome offers a compelling account of the rise of the environmental movement. Drawing on his experience as a journalist as well as his expertise as a scholar, he explains why the first Earth Day was so powerful, bringing one of the greatest political events of the twentieth century to life.


Read an Excerpt

1 The Prehistory of Earth Day
Earth Day was not the work of a well-established movement. Indeed, commentators did not begin to speak about “the environmental movement” until the run-up to Earth Day. Though many Americans had sought to address environmental issues before 1970, their efforts were fragmented. Few organizations worked on both rural and urban problems. The old conservation groups focused on wildlife and wilderness. The fight against air pollution largely was led by single-issue organizations, from Stamp Out Smog in Los Angeles to Citizens for Clean



  • Adam Rome and “The Genius of Earth Day” on WHYY's Radio Times

    In this hour of Radio Times, Marty talks with author Adam Rome about his new book on the history of Earth Day, its key organizers, and how its legacy can be seen today in the form of greater environmental consciousness and activism throughout the country.

  • The History of Earth Day in Seven Minutes: Adam Rome on To The Point

    The first Earth day took place on April 22, 1970. It was marked by more than twelve thousand events across the country with more than thirty-five thousand speakers, including some two-thirds of the members of Congress. Millions participated. The first Earth Day was a remarkable success, both as a popular event and in terms of environmental legislation. It led to the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and to the creation of the Environmental Protect

  • The Genius of Earth Day -Adam Rome at the Boulder Bookstore

    Rome gives a talk about the creation of Earth Day at the Boulder Bookstore.



Praise for The Genius of Earth Day

“Adam Rome’s genial new book . . . brings to life another era. We’re as distant from Earth Day as the Battle of Gettysburg was from James Monroe’s reëlection, and Rome evokes a United States that feels, politically, like a foreign country . . . In Rome’s view, the original Earth Day remains a model of effective political organizing.”
Nicholas Lemann, The New Yorker

“A fascinating treatment of both environmentalism and the structure of activism at the time.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Rome’s retelling of the hopeful origins of Earth Day and its early successes contain an important lesson for today. The social movements and anti-war crusades that swept through the country in the 1960s and ’70s and the movement to promote respect for the natural world demonstrate the tremendous power of activism and grass-roots organizing.”
The Post-Courier (Charleston, SC)

“This is not just history—it’s a highly useful guidebook for anyone trying now to summon the same passion and build the same movement that shook up the world in 1970!”
—Bill McKibben, author of Home and Away: Jail Cells, Beehives, and the Fight for a Working Planet

“Adam Rome has written the first serious history of the largest demonstration in American history—and it is likely to be the definitive one. His wise and captivating narrative explains the roots and remarkable success of Earth Day and should be required reading for anyone who struggles to prevent climate change today.”
—Michael Kazin, author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation

In the Press

Nicholas Lemann: What Happened to the Environmental Movement? : The New Yorker
Today's environmental movement is vastly bigger, richer, and better connected than it was in 1970. It's also vastly less successful. What went wrong?
- The New Yorker

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Adam Rome

  • Adam Rome teaches environmental history and environmental nonfiction at the University of Delaware. Before earning his Ph.D. in history, he worked for seven years as a journalist. His first book, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism, won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award and the Lewis Mumford Prize.



Available Formats and Book Details

The Genius of Earth Day

How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation

Adam Rome




Hill and Wang