The idea sprung from disaster. Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson had just viewed the Santa Barbara oil spill in August 1969. He was flying home when 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?”
Nelson suggested the idea in a speech to a small group on September 20. He proposed that campuses hold local events on one day the following spring to discuss “the threat to the ecology of the world.” A reporter put the announcement in a small national wire service story and soon the Senator’s phone was ringing off the hook by people who wanted to help, captured by the importance of the cause.
April 22, 1970 was selected as the official day and “Earth Day” was chosen as the event name. Not everyone cheered. The right-wing John Birch Society and anti-communists worked to undermine the event that they saw as an attempt to honor Communist leader Vladimir Lenin’s 100th birthday on the same date.
“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.
Civil rights and anti-war activists thought the day would distract the public from their cause.
But the idea had already taken hold. While Nelson had envisioned perhaps 40 events held across the country, the day spilled beyond campuses producing 12,000-13,000 bipartisan events, involving about 35,000 speakers, and engaging an estimated 20 million people – 1 out of every 10 Americans – in a variety of local, grassroots events. The national media coverage was unparalleled with even Sesame Street getting in on the day.
Earth Day launched the “environmental decade of the 1970s” producing the bulk of today’s environmental laws with the passage of 28 pieces of federal legislation, such as the Endangered Species Act and muscular amendments to the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. States, counties and municipalities were also moved to act. What Nelson called “the biggest town meeting in the nation’s history” also turned many participants into dedicated volunteers and activists. I’m one example.
Today marks the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. It has spread to nearly 200 countries and is being called the world’s largest secular day of celebration. While it’s unlikely that we’ll see today many visual displays on the scale witnessed in 1970, anniversaries are good milestones to take stock and look to the future.
We’ve come a long way from those days when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it caught fire and Lake Superior served as a dump for taconite waste. But difficult choices and challenges remain. On Earth Day 2015, I wonder how the 1970 participants would judge our state of the environment today?
• They would applaud the great strides in cleaning up air and waters where we can put on filters over discharge pipes or scrubbers on smokestacks. They’d be disappointed at the lengthy list of “impaired” rivers and streams impacted by agricultural runoff. But they’d find hope in Governor Dayton’s exemplary leadership tackling this issue by requiring buffer strips our waterways.
• They’d be surprised to learn about global climate change and the planetary transformations resulting from greenhouse gas emissions. They’d be even more astounded to learn that a Florida Governor and Wisconsin’s Board of Commissioners of Public Lands are prohibiting public servants to even mention the words “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications. “Is that the American way?” they might ask.
• They would certainly cheer Minnesotan’s approval of the Legacy Amendment and how these financial resources have inspired citizens and agencies to work together to protect and restore critical natural resources such as rehabilitating the Minnesota side of the St. Louis River estuary.They wouldn’t understand why Wisconsin, with its proud conservation tradition, proposes a budget that guts its DNR science programs, eliminates most environmental education positions, freezes land stewardship acquisitions and requires state parks to be self-supporting.
In his speech on the eve of that first Earth Day at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Gaylord Nelson asked a question that remains for each generation:
“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,” he observed. “Are we able? Yes. Are we willing? That’s the unanswered question.”
Mark R. Peterson is the former executive director of the Northland College Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute and former director of Audubon Minnesota. This editorial appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Earth Day 2015.