Introduction: the Earth Day story and Gaylord Nelson

Nelson Senate newsletter from May 1970

The May 1970 issue of Gaylord Nelson's Senate newsletter.

Accounting for what the first Earth Day accomplished, Nelson reflected: "A new movement had begun, and uncounted millions—students, laborers, farmers, housewives, politicians, professional people, liberals and conservatives—who might have found it difficult to find common agreement on any other subject, were gathering together in a massive educational effort to talk about survival and the quality of survival in a world they all share."

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The first Earth Day, observed across the country on April 22, 1970, crystallized a growing public concern about ecological crises. Earth Day was the product of local grassroots action to increase environmental awareness but it also focused the nation's political agenda on urgent environmental issues.

It was Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson who in September 1969 proposed a national teach-in on the environment to send a message to Washington that public opinion was solidly behind a bold political agenda on environmental problems.

Inspired by the campus activism of the late 1960s, he employed a team of experienced students to help him respond to the immediate and overwhelming public excitement for a national day on the environment. However, Nelson insisted the first Earth Day's activities be created not by organizers in Washington, but by individuals and groups in their own communities. As a result of this empowering vision, 1 in 10 Americans participated in the first Earth Day, drawing extensive attention from the media and jump-starting an era of bold environmental legislation.

Nelson's decade-long struggle

Gaylord Nelson earned a national reputation as "the Conservation Governor" by starting popular reforms in Wisconsin to clean up waterways, protect natural resources, create green jobs, and bolster the state's recreation infrastructure. But once elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962, he spent 7 years trying unsuccessfully to draw the attention of lawmakers to his environmental agenda.

However, beyond Capitol Hill, Americans increasingly shared Nelson's concerns. The percentage of citizens who cited cleaning up air and water as one of their top three political priorities rose from 17% in 1965 to 53% in 1970. Added to rising fears about smog, pesticides, and water pollution were the dual headline-grabbers of 1969: the massive Santa Barbara oil spill and a river so polluted it actually burned, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River.

Eureka! the Earth Day idea

Nelson had just toured the oil spill devastation on the coast of Santa Barbara and was flying to San Francisco when he read an article about recent popular teach-ins held on college campuses. The format struck him as a promising way to communicate this growing public concern to elected officials in Washington D.C. and state government. He imagined that:

"If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda."

Separate teach-ins were already planned at San Jose State, Dickinson College (Pennsylvania), and the University of Michigan—all organized campus-wide events drawing attention to ecological crises. Nelson aimed to unite these efforts and then extend them beyond the college campus. He announced his intentions at a speech in Seattle on September 20, 1969 and several major media outlets immediately broadcast the idea to national audiences.

Choosing "not to be in charge"

As the idea caught fire, Nelson's Senate mailbox was inundated, so he set up an independent organization, Environmental Teach-In, Inc., to handle the flood of queries from excited citizens. Inclusivity was, for Nelson, the key to a national day on the environment. He insisted that the national office would not try to shape a uniform national protest—this was to be a day for people to act locally. "This is the time," Nelson insisted, "for old-fashion political action."

Nelson and the Teach-In office worked tirelessly to drum up publicity for the day, provide what support they could to organizers, and advertise the multitude of grassroots action. He and his staff encouraged citizens young and old to investigate ecological problems in their communities and develop their own responses. Nelson established a steering committee of scientists, academics, environmentalists, and students, and tapped California Republican Congressman Paul McCloskey as co-chair.

Burlington, WI demonstration home for Earth Day

A Burlington, Wisconsin girl showcases her proposal for energy conservation during Earth Week 1973. Grassroots participation and organization was extremely important to Gaylord Nelson.

A day for 20 million

Nelson's decision to leave Earth Day to the grassroots proved genius. Exceeding their wildest expectations, Nelson and his staff estimated 20 million Americans — from 10,000 elementary and high schools, 2,000 colleges, and over 1,000 communities — took action on April 22, 1970. Though students lent the day a unique spirit, it did not draw out only the young. Labor union members, housewives, farmers, scientists, and politicians of all stripes — from Barry Goldwater to Edward Kennedy — made up the mosaic of faces in Earth Day crowds.

Throughout his life Nelson remained modest about his own contribution but was extremely proud of the nation's response:

"Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time not the resources to organize the 20 million demonstrators who participated from thousands of schools and local communities. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself."

A new coalition?

After a decade marked by partisan rancor and social division, Nelson hoped Earth Day could form "a new national coalition whose objective is to put quality for human life on a par with Gross National Product." In Washington, at least, environmental politics did for a time become the obsession of both parties. The midterm election of 1970 spelled defeat for politicians linked to dirty industries, while President Nixon and many in Congress rushed to lend their support to the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and stringent amendments to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

Despite the achievements, many remained suspicious that the new environmental politics in national discourse served to distract from the struggles against militarism, racism, and poverty. In the Senate, Nelson worked to break through these perceived divisions between the era's major crises. He repeatedly called for elimination of the federal funds dedicated to the Vietnam War, defense technology, and the space program—money that Nelson wanted more effectively spent on toxic cleanup and green jobs. "Make no mistake," he insisted in the week before the first Earth Day, "any national policy on the environment that is worth its name must mean attacking the problem of our cities and the poor as much as it means providing national parks and scenic rivers."

sticker celebrating Earth Day 25th anniversary

A sticker from the Nelson Collection celebrating Earth Day 1995

The living tradition of Earth Day

Nelson's aim with the first Earth Day was to light a fire for the environment in Washington, and Nelson felt satisfied it had done so. He saw no need to replicate Earth Day. But Earth Day, born in rural towns and big cities across the country in 1970, has remained an important annual way to raise awareness of local environmental issues each year.

Nelson did work with allies to organize Earth Week activities in the 3 years that followed, with the explicit goal of installing an annual event in schools to promote environmental education. National observation of Earth Day peaked in 1990 for its 20th anniversary, with an focus in forging international alliances, a goal carried into the 25th and 30th anniversaries. An estimated 184 countries held formal Earth Day celebrations in 2000.

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