From "The Man From Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Sen. Gaylord Nelson," by Bill Christofferson, copyright, University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
* * * * *
On a remarkable spring day in 1970, environmental activism entered the mainstream of American life and politics.
It was Earth Day, and the American environmental movement was forever changed. Twenty million people – ten per cent of the United States population – mobilized to show their support for a clean environment. They attended marches, rallies, concerts and teach-ins. They planted trees and picked up tons of trash. They confronted polluters and held classes on environmental issues. They signed petitions and wrote letters to politicians. They gathered in parks, on city streets, in campus auditoriums, in small towns and major cities. The weather cooperated; in most of the country, it was a clear and sunny day. The news media also cooperated, and covered the event extensively.
Fifth Avenue in New York City was closed to traffic for two hours, and a photo of tens of thousands of New Yorkers strolling and jamming the temporary pedestrian mall dominated the front page of the next day’s New York Times. An estimated one hundred thousand people took part during the day in activities at Union Square, the center for speeches and teach-ins. Mayor John Lindsay set the tone in a brief speech, saying that environmental issues might sound complicated, but it all boiled down to a simple question: “Do we want to live or die?”
In Chicago, the sun seemed pale and distant on Earth Day, and the city’s monitoring devices showed levels of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere above the danger point for infants and the elderly. Several thousand persons attended a rally at Civic Center Plaza, where Illinois Attorney General William Scott declared that he would sue the City of Milwaukee for dumping sewage into Lake Michigan. The Chicago Tribune ran front page side-by-side photos taken during and after the rally, showing an amazing sight. When the demonstrators left, “there was no post-rally litter remaining to be cleaned up,” the newspaper reported.
At the Washington Monument, a crowd of ten thousand gathered to hear folk music from Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs and speeches by Senator Edmund Muskie, muckraker I.F. Stone, Chicago Seven defendant Rennie Davis, and others. Earlier, 1,700 people had marched to the Interior Department offices to leave symbolic puddles of oil on the doorstep, and some Connecticut Girl Scouts in canoes had pulled tires and debris from the Potomac River. In Philadelphia, twenty-five thousand people heard Muskie call for “an environmental revolution” and criticize government priorities that spent “twenty times as much on Vietnam as we are to fight water pollution, and twice as much on the supersonic transport as we are to fight air pollution.”
Congress had adjourned so its members could go home and give Earth Day speeches. For many, it was the first time they had given an environmental speech, and they drew heavily on material from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day’s founder. At least twenty-two U.S. Senators participated, as did governors and local officials across the nation. The governors of New York and New Jersey signed laws creating new state environmental agencies. The Massachusetts legislature passed an environmental bill of rights. President Nixon, through an aide, said he had said enough about his concern about pollution and would be watching, rather than participating in Earth Day, and hoping it would lead to an ongoing anti-pollution campaign. Nixon had, in fact, in his State of the Union speech three months earlier, called for a national fight against air and water pollution.
There were plenty of theatrics, dramatic gestures, and attention-getting stunts. So many students in Omaha, Nebraska wore gas masks that the supply ran out. Indian sitar music greeted the dawn over Lake Mendota at the University of Wisconsin, accompanied by “an apology to God.” In San Francisco, “Environmental Vigilantes” dumped oil into a reflecting pool at Standard Oil Company offices to protest oil spills. At Boston’s Logan Airport, a group of young people was arrested for blocking a corridor to protest the development of a supersonic transport. A group in Denver gave the Atomic Energy Commission an award – “Environmental Rapist of the Year.”
Old automobiles were pounded, demolished, disassembled, and buried. School children and adults alike collected trash and litter from roadsides, parks, streams and lakes. In Ohio, students put “This is a Polluter” stickers on autos, and at Iowa State and Syracuse Universities, students blocked autos from coming onto the campus. In Tacoma, Washington, one hundred students rode down a freeway on horseback to protest auto emissions. In Cleveland, one thousand students filled garbage trucks with trash. In Appalachia, students buried a trash-filled casket. California students cut up their oil company credit cards. In Coral Gables, Florida, a demonstrator paraded with dead fish and a dead octopus in front of a power plant.
But the real focus was the schools. The National Education Association estimated that ten million public school children took part in Earth Day programs. Earth Day organizers said two thousand colleges and ten thousand grade and high schools participated.
In Clear Lake, Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson’s hometown, junior and senior high school students observed Earth Day at a school assembly with speeches, songs, and skits, then cleaned up more than 250 bags full of litter from the streets and highways in and around the village. A photo of young “demonstrators” with picket signs ran on page one of The Clear Lake Star the next week.
Many businesses put their best faces forward and joined the call for a cleaner earth. In New York, Consolidated Edison supplied the rakes and shovels used by school children cleaning up Union Square, and provided an electrically powered bus to take Mayor Lindsay around the city. Scott Paper, Texas Gulf Sulphur, Sun Oil, Rex Chainbelt and other companies used the occasion to announce projects to clean up or control pollution. Continental Oil introduced four new cleaner gasolines, ALCOA ran newspaper ads touting a new anti-pollution process at its plants, and Republic Steel sent twenty-five company executives to speak at high schools and colleges.
The business participation drew a mixed reaction. Organizers said some companies spent more advertising their support of Earth Day than on Earth Day itself. General Electric stockholders met in Minneapolis, to be greeted outside by a protestor dressed as the Grim Reaper and later were confronted in the meeting by a student leader demanding that the company refuse war contracts and use its influence to channel government expenditures into protecting the environment instead.
The nation’s news media were uncertain what to make of Earth Day. Newsweek was bemused, and somewhat dismissive, calling Earth Day “a bizarre nationwide rain dance” and the nation’s “biggest street festival since the Japanese surrendered in 1945.” Time said the day “had aspects of a secular, almost pagan holiday…” The question, Newsweek asked, was “whether the whole uprising represented a giant step forward for contaminated Earthmen or just a springtime skipalong.” The event lacked the passion of antiwar and civil rights movements, Newsweek said, and the issues were so unfocused as to give rise to “the kind of nearly unanimous blather usually reserved for the flag.” Time said the real question was whether the movement was a fad or could sustain the interest and commitment it would take to bring about real change. “Was it all a passing fancy…?” The New York Times asked in a morning-after editorial, then answered its own question: “We think not. Conservation is a cause … whose time has come because life is running out. Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.”
Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day’s founder, framed the question differently. In a four-day speaking tour that took him from New England to the Midwest to the West Coast, Nelson said: “This is not just an issue of survival. Mere survival is not enough. How we survive is the critical issue. . . . Our goal is not just an environment of clean air, and water, and scenic beauty – while forgetting about the Appalachias and the ghettos where our citizens live in America’s worst environment. . . . Our goal is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human creatures and all other living creatures – an environment without ugliness, without ghettoes, without discrimination, without hunger, poverty, or war. Our goal is a decent environment in the deepest and broadest sense.”
A tall order, bordering on Utopian. But on this first Earth Day, anything seemed possible. Nelson, after years of talking quietly, persuasively, and persistently about the environment, had unleashed a whirlwind. Time wondered whether Nelson was “a bit too euphoric”, when he said, in his Earth Day speech in Denver: “Earth Day may be a turning point in American history. It may be the birth date of a new American ethic that rejects the frontier philosophy that the continent was put here for our plunder, and accepts the idea that even urbanized, affluent, mobile societies are interdependent with the fragile, life-sustaining systems of the air, the water, the land.”
But his assessment was reasonably accurate. Others who looked at Earth Day in retrospect agreed that it was a watershed event. Philip Shabecoff, a longtime New York Times environmental reporter, called it “the day environmentalism in the United States began to emerge as a mass social movement.” American Heritage magazine described Earth Day as “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy…American politics and public policy would never be the same again.” Denis Hayes, the national coordinator for Earth Day, later called it the largest organized demonstration in the history of the world.
Nelson, the visionary behind Earth Day, had spent a decade searching for a catalyst to make the environment a prominent part of the nation’s political agenda. As the leading environmentalist in the U.S. Senate, Nelson had given hundreds of speeches on the issue and visited twenty-five states during the 1960s. It was clear to him that there was widespread concern about environmental pollution. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb,” and other important and critical writing about the environment had helped raise awareness. But issues closer to home were what energized people. Even environmental politics are local. Almost everyone had a cause, a personal connection, some special project or concern, a reason to care about the environment. It wasn’t all about Lake Erie dying or the Cuyahoga River catching fire or the Santa Barbara oil spill or other highly publicized examples of the growing threat to the environment. It was about the local landfill leaching into wells, or the city spraying DDT, or fish dying in the river, or a myriad of other local environmental problems that became apparent during the 1960s. Nelson heard it everywhere he went. What was needed, he decided, was something dramatic, “a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and finally force this issue permanently into the political arena.”
That was the genius of Earth Day – tapping the wellspring of environmental concern that was bubbling just below the surface of the national consciousness. When it happened, “It was truly an astonishing grassroots explosion,” Nelson said. “The people cared and Earth Day became the first opportunity they ever had to … send a big message to the politicians – a message to tell them to wake up and do something. It worked because of the spontaneous, enthusiastic reception at the grassroots. Nothing like it had ever happened before. While our organizing on college campuses was very well done, the thousands of events in our schools and communities were self-generated at the local level.”
That it should have been Nelson who had the inspiration should have been no surprise. He had spent his life “in a career that, like a planet hooked in orbit around its star, never strayed far from a central concern over resources and the quality of the environment.”
Nelson had long sought a way to elevate environmental issues to the top of the nation’s political agenda. He sensed a growing environmental awareness among Americans, and looked for a way to channel their energy into political change. “In speaking around the country about the issue, I was satisfied that the public was interested and concerned. Everybody in every community, almost, was seeing the deterioration of the environment around them. I knew there was a great public interest in the issue of the environment,” he said. The challenge was how to mobilize that interest and convert it to action.[i]
The idea came to him during a conservation speaking tour on the West Coast in the summer of 1969. Nelson spoke at a water quality conference in Santa Barbara, California. Afterward, he and Harry Ashmore, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor from Arkansas and senior fellow of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, viewed the residue of the disastrous oil spill near Santa Barbara. On a flight to Berkeley for his next speech, he read an article about teach-ins on the Vietnam war being conducted on college campuses. “It popped into my head. That’s it!” Nelson said. “Why not have an environmental teach-in and get everyone involved?” [ii]
He discussed the idea with his contacts at the University of California in Berkeley, and they were enthusiastic. Upon his return to Washington, D.C. he began to lay the groundwork. He formed a non-profit, organization, Environmental Teach-In, Inc. and persuaded Pete McCloskey, a moderate California Republican Congressman, to join him as co-chair, insuring that the group would be non-partisan as well. Nelson recruited Sydney Howe, president of The Conservation Foundation, as a board member. Howe was a well-known and highly regarded conservationist who would be acceptable to a wide spectrum of other groups.
Nelson also raised some seed money. Larry Rockefeller, then a young environmental lawyer, wrote a check for the first one thousand dollars. Nelson called Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, and got a two thousand dollar donation, which he used to leverage a matching contribution from George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO. Meany was less receptive to the idea, but would not be outdone by the more liberal Reuther. The Conservation Foundation contributed twenty thousand dollars, and Nelson himself contributed all of the honoraria he received for his environmental speeches, which totaled about eighteen thousand dollars by Earth Day. The total budget was less than two hundred thousand dollars, and much of it came in small contributions.[iii]
Nelson went public with his plan on 20 September 1969 in a speech in Seattle to the Washington Environmental Council. He called for a national teach-in on “The Crisis of the Environment,” on every college campus in the nation the next spring, all on the same day. Nelson said he would take the lead in organizing the event, for students, faculty, scientists and public leaders to discuss “the threat to the ecology of the world.”
“I am convinced that the same concern the youth of this nation took in changing this nation’s priorities on the war in Vietnam and on civil rights can be shown for the problems of the environment,” Nelson said. The nation’s youth could take the leadership away from the “indifferent, venal men who are concerned with progress and profit for the sake of progress and profit alone and consider the environment the problem of the birdwatchers and butterfly chasers,” Nelson said.[iv]
His announcement prompted a short national wire service story, and suddenly, he said, “it simply took off like gangbusters” with calls and mail coming in to his Senate office from people who wanted to get involved. Two of his Senate staff members, John Heritage and Linda Billings, handled the requests, with Nelson frequently called off the Senate floor to field telephone calls from reporters and interested campus organizers across the country. Nelson’s speech to the AFL-CIO convention in late September also attracted some attention to the teach-in.[v]
A month later, when Nelson spoke in Washington at a Congressional Conference on the Environment and at a national student conference at Airlie House in Warrentown, Virginia, he was already talking about opening a national office and hiring a staff. The one hundred student activists from across the country were enthusiastic. The next day, several of them showed up at Nelson’s Senate office to say they had held a meeting, chosen a chairman, and had formed a committee to run the teach-ins. “Not so fast. I’m gonna choose and run it,” Nelson told them, adding that they were welcome to participate or do something else on their own.[vi]
A group of “campus militants … saw this as another opportunity and springboard to militantly bring to the attention of the country all the ills and negatives associated with capitalism and an unresponsive democratic system,” said Harold C. (Bud) Jordahl. “They were giving (John) Heritage a fit, visiting the office every day, wanting to run the whole thing.” Nelson asked Jordahl, then on the University of Wisconsin faculty, to come to Washington to help get things on track. “These were bright, young, energetic, highly motivated students,” Jordahl recalled. “They were not anarchists, but they wanted a militant Earth Day. Gaylord wanted a peaceful national teach-in.” Jordahl finally laid it out for the students at a meeting: The Senator wants a national committee with some members of national stature. He wants to raise some money to get the idea off the ground, and he wants to organize a different kind of event than the one you envision. “We didn’t want to alienate them,” Jordahl said. “We just wanted them to go away,” and they did.[vii]
When it came time to hire someone to coordinate Earth Day events, it was an experienced campus activist who got the job. Denis Hayes, a graduate student at Harvard, read about the planned teach-in and made an appointment with Nelson and Heritage. He left with “a charter to kick up as much dust as possible around Harvard and surrounding educational institutions.” Hayes had been student body president of Stanford University the previous school year, and had been involved in organizing against the Vietnam war, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and classified military research on campus. Nelson checked Hayes out with McCloskey and others, had Heritage do a thorough background check, and then asked Hayes to head up the teach-in office. Hayes left school to do it full-time.[viii]
The headquarters soon outgrew its first office space, which had been donated by John Gardner of Common Cause. A grungy, chaotic office above a Chinese restaurant on P Street became the national nerve center, staffed by energetic and idealistic young people, a mixture of volunteers and full-time staff members who worked day and night for minimal or no pay. Hayes recruited activists from around the country, a diverse group drawn largely from people active in other social movements. “We saw ourselves at a pivotal point in history,” he said. While drawing on veterans of political protest movements, the Earth Day cadre set out to win widespread support. The environmental movement had the potential to reach across all segments of the population and bring them together. That was Gaylord Nelson’s vision, and it was the goal of the young people he enlisted in his crusade.[ix]
“We consciously set out to build a movement to bring America back together, and let everyone under the umbrella with a shared set of values,” Hayes said. “We tapped into something that resonated very strongly with the American people. Gaylord recognized the potential to merge old conservation values with new energy conservation issues. But no one knew how gigantic it would be.”[x]
Nelson would insist, in later years, that no one could have organized Earth Day. What made it work, he said, was that it organized itself. “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor the resources to organize twenty million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself,” Nelson said.[xi]
By the time the office opened in January and regional coordinators went to work, there already were signs that something big was in the wind. The New York Times, in a front-page story by its environmental reporter, Gladwin Hill, said that growing concerns about the environment “is sweeping this nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam.” Campus environmental groups across the country – in Tennessee, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Illinois, California, Connecticut, Minnesota, Maine, Colorado, and Hawaii – were already active and looking forward to “the first D-Day of the movement, next April 22,” Hill reported. “Given the present-rising pitch of interest, some supporters think, it could be a bigger and more meaningful event than the antiwar demonstrations.” That story ran on 30 November 1969, before Earth Day efforts were really off the ground, and before Earth Day had its name. Many of the activities offered a small preview of Earth Day. A University of Minnesota group picked up twenty-six thousand empty cans and tried unsuccessfully to return them to the manufacturer to be recycled. At the University of Illinois, students removed six tons of refuse from a nearby creek and convinced local officials to adopt a plan to beautify it. University of Washington students conducted a learn-in. Others picketed, petitioned, confronted polluters and began legal action. The issue was bringing together “former antiwar activists, young Democrats, crew-cut fraternity members and so-called hippies,” Newsweek said….. “Indeed, the strength and promise of the burgeoning interest in the integrity of the American landscape is its appeal to students of all political leanings…” Environmental awareness was simmering on the nation’s campuses. Earth Day would bring it to a boil, and it would spill over well beyond the campuses. [xii]
The Environmental Teach-In office in Washington served as a clearinghouse for information, and requests poured in by the thousands, even before the doors were open. Nelson had sent an early mailing to every governor and two hundred mayors, asking them to issue proclamations. His office also had sent an article to college newspapers and to Scholastic magazine, read by teachers across the country. The Washington office added mailings to conservation groups, teachers, garden clubs, ministers, and others, inviting their participation. Those who contacted the office received four pages of information about the planned teach-in, stressing that it would be a day of national action but planned and organized at the local level. It offered a list of activities being planned by colleges, high schools, and communities, ranging from seminars and speeches to mass phone calls to polluters, displays of dead fish, and literally turning a spotlight on a polluting smokestack. Other conservation organizations and new groups like Friends of the Earth helped spread the word. The Environmental Handbook, published by Friends of the Earth specifically for the Earth Day teach-ins, quickly sold out its first printing
Besides simply sending out information, the national office organized its incoming mail by ZIP code and put people in touch with each other. Eventually, the mailing list, on metal Addressograph plates, reached sixty thousand, maintained by Kent Conrad, a hard working volunteer later to become a U.S. Senator from North Dakota. Staff members brainstormed about cheap or free ways to expand the appeal and bring in more people and groups, and kept an eye out for potential problems that could give the movement a black eye. At San Jose State, Hispanic students said the money being spent on Earth Day could be better used to pay for scholarships for minority students, but the regional coordinator was able to step in and de-fuse the situation. In Chicago, a pro-business group seized leadership of the local organization, and organizers feared the media would report that Earth Day had been co-opted. Hayes went to Chicago, called a steering committee meeting, and help to engineer a coup d’etat that put environmentalists back in charge.[xiii]
Introducing ‘Earth Day’
A full-page advertisement in the Sunday New York Times on 18 January 1970 helped spread the word to a wider audience. In a bold headline, it introduced “Earth Day” to the vocabulary as well. “A disease has infected our country. It has brought smog to Yosemite, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food, and left our cities in decay,” the ad said. “Its carrier is man.”
“Earth Day is a commitment to make life better, not just bigger and faster; to provide real rather than rhetorical solutions. It is a day to re-examine the ethic of individual progress at mankind’s expense. It is a day to challenge the corporate and governmental leaders who promise change, but who shortchange the necessary programs. It is a day for looking beyond tomorrow. April 22 seeks a future worth living. April 22 seeks a future.” The advertisement asked for responses and contributions, and both poured in. The ad actually turned a profit for the teach-in. The ad had been prepared, pro bono, by a top New York advertising agency, which presented several mock-ups to the Environmental Teach-In staff. There were a half dozen choices on the sample advertisements, such as Ecology Day and Environment Day. Earth Day won hands down. Nelson said he really didn’t care what it was called, and did not think the name was a critical component of the event’s success. Nelson himself continued to call it the environmental teach-in, but by April 22 the media were calling it Earth Day.
The national office also encouraged local governments to sanction the events. John Lindsay, New York’s mayor, was the most cooperative, allowing the use of Central Park, closing Fifth Avenue, and putting his political operatives and the police force available. His blessing and active participation helped put Earth Day in the spotlight in the world’s biggest media center.
As the date approached, the Washington office began to get a sense of the enormous amount of interest and participation Earth Day was generating, and the broad spectrum of people participating. The national staff members were young, mostly in their early 20s, and their early contacts were with campus groups. But as the idea spread, many of the organizers of community events were women in their mid- to late-30s, often college-educated, but at home raising children. Many of them had missed out on much of the civil rights and antiwar movement of the 1960s, but now they decided in huge numbers to become involved in saving the environment. By late February, the potential enormity of Earth Day began to dawn on the national office. As they communicated with people around the country, it became clear that events and activities were being planned on a scale that no one could have predicted.
In the two weeks leading up to Earth Day, Nelson traveled the country on a seventeen-stop speaking tour that took him to schools, labor unions, and state legislatures, and to featured appearances on network television programs. He called for a campaign to elect an “Ecology Congress” in a speech to the Pennsylvania legislature. “People from coast to coast are disgusted and angry at the accelerating destruction of our environment and the quality of life,” he said. To really clean up pollution would require an investment of twenty-five billion dollars a year or more, he said on CBS Television’s “Face the Nation.” “No administration has understood the size of the issue,’ he said. “It is much more important than space, weapons systems, or the money we’re wasting in Vietnam.” When a Yale University student challenged him on how he would cut the space program to pay for the cleanup, Nelson said, “I wouldn’t revise the space program. I’d terminate it,” and the audience broke into applause. “The moon is going to be there for a long time. It will be just as dead 30 years from now as it is today. The only purpose of getting to the moon that I know of is to see what this country will look like if we don’t stop doing what we’re doing.” If spiraling population growth, the world’s biggest problem, continued unchecked, “we might as well forget finding solutions to any of other social and environmental problems,” he told another college audience in New Haven, Connecticut. Even if the U.S. made environmental cleanup its top priority, “we would fail unless we could find a reasonable check on the nation’s population growth,” he said. [xiv]
On April 21, Nelson told the United Auto Workers convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey that the automobile was becoming the symbol of the environmental crisis. “The heart of the problem is the internal combustion engine, which has powered America into unparalleled affluence, but now may drive it to unprecedented environmental disaster,” Nelson said, calling for development of a pollution-free auto engine. UAW President Walter Reuther had told his members the day before that “the auto industry is one of the worst culprits and it has failed to meet its public responsibility,” and called for the industry to join government in developing a modern mass transportation system. The convention later passed a resolution declaring that the UAW would raise the pollution issue in its contract negotiations, since the workers had a stake in helping society solve the problem, and in keeping their own jobs in the face of threats that polluting internal combustion engines would be banned. Next came a speech to the Massachusetts legislature and, then it was on to Wisconsin for two campus appearances on the eve of Earth Day.[xv]
Nelson arrived home in Madison to learn that the permit for a planned Earth Day parade had been canceled. The city council was worried that the parade of non-polluting vehicles, sponsored by the campus Engineers and Scientists for Professional Responsibility, might somehow spawn the kind of violent, window-breaking spree the city had experienced the previous weekend when a peace rally was disrupted by radicals. A small group bicycled and marched up State Street on Earth Day anyway, picking up litter along the way and collecting cigarette butts from the Capitol lawn. That night, thousands of students at the University of Wisconsin Stock Pavilion cheered Nelson when he told them that “the hope of mankind is that the Red Army and the Pentagon will become obsolete.” The United States and Soviet Union should reach a peaceful agreement that would allow money to be spent on improving the environment instead of on weapons, he said. Without a cutback in military spending the U.S. could not spend the twenty five billion dollars needed annually to clean up pollution, Nelson said. Both sides had enough weapons to kill everyone in the world once, Nelson said. “Why do we need to do it twice?”[xvi]
Later that night, at a Milwaukee teach-in, his standard comment that unchecked population growth was the biggest threat to the environment touched off a debate with author and cities critic Jane Jacobs, who was also on the program. “By any standard, the United States is overpopulated now,” Nelson said. “… if the population of the world goes from three billion to seven billion in the next thirty-five years, it will be impossible to maintain a quality environment in this country or any country in the world.” Jacobs said the environmental movement was “laboring under the delusion that population and affluence are causing environmental deterioration.” The prospect of any government population control program frightened her, Jacobs said. “As things stand, we are not a fit society to possess public powers for population control.”[xvii]
On Earth Day itself, in speeches at the University of Indiana, at a massive teach-in in Denver, and on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, Nelson gave what had become his standard, passionate call for an unprecedented battle against pollution. He finished the tour on 23 April at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He was warmly received everywhere he went, although twenty young women on the Indiana campus dressed in witch costumes, danced, tossed birth control pills at the crowd, and chanted, “Free our bodies, free our minds.” A Senate subcommittee chaired by Nelson had been investigating the safety of birth control pills, which had prompted similar protests at the hearings.[xviii]
By the time Earth Day arrived, “Conservatives were for it. Liberals were for it. Democrats, Republicans and Independents were for it. So were the ins, the outs, the Executive and legislative branches of government,” The New York Times reported. “It was Earth Day, and, like Mother’s Day, no man in public office could be against it.” Indeed, while Senator Edward Kennedy spoke at Yale, Senator Barry Goldwater was at Adelphi University in Garden City, Long Island, and elected officials of all stripes were taking part in events.[xix]
Critics Left and Right
But Earth Day was not without its detractors. Criticism came from both sides of the political spectrum, for very different reasons.
The right-wing John Birch Society did not like the date Nelson had chosen. April 22 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, and Earth Day was nothing but an ill-disguised attempt by radicals to honor the revolutionary Communist leader, they claimed. “Subversive elements plan to make American children live in an environment that is good for them,” a Mississippi delegate to a Daughters of the American Revolution convention warned. Nelson had chosen the date as the one that could maximize participation on college campuses. He determined that the week of April 19-25 was the best bet. It did not fall during exams or spring breaks, did not conflict with religious holidays such as Easter or Passover, and was late enough in spring to have decent weather. More students were likely to be in class, and there would be less competition with other events mid-week, so he chose Wednesday, April 22. [xx]
Nelson had no idea it was Lenin’s birthday, but he did some research and had a response ready when the question came up, as it did with some frequency. With only 365 days a year and 3.7 billion people in the world, every day was the birthday of ten million living people, Nelson explained. “On any given day, a lot of both good and bad people were born,” he said. “A person many consider the world’s first environmentalist, Saint Francis of Assisi, was born on April 22. So was Queen Isabella. More importantly, so was my Aunt Tillie.” His humor defused the question, but it continued to be asked, and some took it seriously. The Los Angeles City Council passed an Earth Day resolution on 20 April 1970, but only after sharp debate, and voting 8-6 for an amendment expressing “concern” about the date and a hope that the date would be changed in future years.[xxi]
On the political left, the environmental movement and Earth Day drew fire for taking attention and energy from other issues like racism, poverty, and the Vietnam war. “The nation’s concern with the environment has done what George Wallace was unable to do: Distract the nation from the human problems of the black and brown Americans, living in just as much misery as ever,” Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana said. Journalist I.F. Stone, speaking at the rally at the Washington Monument, called Earth Day a “beautiful snow job” designed to distract attention from government military and spending policies. “We here tonight are being conned,” Stone said. “The country is slipping into a wider war in Southeast Asia and we’re sitting here talking about litter bugs.” A Philadelphia group, the Young Great Society, boycotted the local observance. “What about the pollution of the mind, the pollution of the houses, the pollution of the dirty, uncared-for systems left to the poor,” the group’s leader, Herman Wrice, asked. “Can we really accomplish anything with a big outdoor rally? How many weekends are those college kids going to go out in their boats and fish for trash? Meanwhile, we’ve still got sewers stopped up with rats.” [xxii]
On Earth Day, protestors waving Viet Cong flags stormed the stage and disrupted a speech by Governor William Milliken at Michigan State University, and Sen. Henry Jackson was heckled while speaking in Seattle. But protest from radical groups was almost non-existent. If anything, like the Young Greats in Philadelphia, they simply stayed away. The FBI, however, sent agents to monitor events in Washington and three other cities, at the request of Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, looking for “the involvement of radical groups in the ecology movement,” according to a memo in Nelson’s FBI files.
Environment, Broadly Defined
In his speech at the University of Wisconsin in Madison on the eve of Earth Day, Nelson made it clear he saw the movement as broadly focused. “Our goal is not to forget about the worst environments in America – in the ghettos, in Appalachia and elsewhere,” he said. “Our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings and all other living creatures – an environment without ugliness, without ghettos, without poverty, without discrimination, without hunger and without war. Our goal is a decent environment in its deepest and broadest sense.
“The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment, between man and other living creatures, will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical and financial commitment far beyond any commitment ever made by any society in the history of man. Are we able? Yes. Are we willing? That’s the unanswered question.”[xxiii]
In his Denver speech, Nelson said the broad support for Earth Day could be the beginning of “a new national coalition whose objective is to put quality of human life on a par with Gross National Product as an aim of this society.” Earth Day was “dramatic evidence of a broad new American concern that cuts across generations and ideologies. Yet some are saying it is a ‘cop out’ from the Vietnam war issue and a ‘cop out’ by the middle class from facing the problems of the black ghetto,” Nelson said. “Just because it looks like a consensus, don’t drop out yet. The fact that so many Americans can agree on a problem could be the best news in decades. Earth Day may be symbolic of new perspectives on the still pressing problems of the last decade – of race, of war, of poverty, of the relevancy of modern-day institutions.”[xxiv]
Weather and events cooperated, and the media gave the day wide and positive coverage. If Manhattan’s event had been rained out, or if the U.S. had invaded Cambodia on April 22, millions still would have participated in Earth Day. But it may not have had either the immediate impact or the permanent imprint it made on the national consciousness. As it was, Earth Day changed everything.
“It did exactly what I was aiming for,” Nelson said. “It was a big enough demonstration to get the attention of the political establishment and force the issue on to the political agenda. The public was already there, ahead of the politicians. When the people demonstrated their interest, the politicians responded. All through the 1970s and into the 1980s we passed a tremendous amount of environmental legislation because the politicians were responding.”[xxv]
Earth Day introduced the Environmental Decade, an unparalleled period of legislative and grassroots activity to protect the nation’s environment. More significant environmental legislation was signed into law during the eleven-year “decade” (1970-1980) than during the 170-year period prior to Earth Day. Congress passed twenty-eight major environmental laws, and hundreds of other public lands bills to protect and conserve natural resources.
“After Earth Day, nothing was the same,” environmental writer Philip Shabecoff said. Earth Day brought revolutionary change and “touched off a great burst of activism that profoundly affected the nation’s laws, its economy, its corporations, its farms, its politics, science, education, religion, and journalism…” It achieved Nelson’s long-sought goal of putting the environment onto the nation’s political agenda. “Most important, the social forces unleashed after Earth Day changed, probably forever, the way Americans think about the environment.”[i]
[i] Philip Shabecoff, A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 114.
[i] GAN, interview by author, tape recording, 9 January 1993.
[xi] “History of Earth Day,” flyer from The Wilderness Society
[xii] Gladwin Hill, “Environment May Eclipse Vietnam as College Issue,” NYT, 30 November 1969. “Philip W. Semas, “Students Make Environment a Major Issue,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 January 1970.
New Bag on Campus,” Newsweek, 22 Dec. 1969.
[xiii] Denis Hayes, interview by author, telephone, 28 June 2001.
[xiv] John W. Kole, “Nelson Urges Vote for Ecology Congress,” MJ,, 14 April 1970. AP, “Nelson Sees Pollution Cost of $25 Billion, “ MS, 20 April 1970. John W. Kole, “Nelson Matches Wits With Students on Environment,” MJ, 16 April 1970. “Nelson Sees Population as No. 1 Problem,” MS, 17 April 1970.
[xv] Walter P. Reuther speech excerpt, “Two-Ton Gadgets,” to UAW convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, 20 April 1970. Nelson press release 70-57, Nelson Senate papers, SHSW.
[xvi] “Madison Protestors Rampage,” MJ, 19 April 1970. Quincy Dadisman, “Nelson: Peace Is Mankind’s Hope,” MS, 22 April 1970.
[xvii] Paul G. Hayes, “Population Concept Collide in Earth Week Events,” MJ, 22 April 1970.
[xviii] Richard Harwood, “Earth Day Stirs Nation,” WP, 23 April 1970.
[xix] Nan Robertson, “Earth Day, Like Mother’s, Pulls Capital Together,” NYT, 23 April 1970.
[xx] “A Memento Mori to the Earth, Time, 4 May 1970, p. 16
[xxi]”City Council Gives Reluctant Backing to April 22 Earth Day,” Los Angeles Times, 21 April 1970.
[xxii] Jack Rosenthal, “Some Troubled by Environmental Drive,” NYT, 22 April 1970. “Area Holds Cleanup With Rally, “ WP, 23 April 1970.
[xxiii] GAN, speech at University of Wisconsin, 21 April 1970, film archives, SHSW.
[xxiv] Nelson press release 70-62, Nelson Senate papers, SHSW.