Earth Day: the Rough Draft

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This hidden treasure from the Nelson Papers collection reveals a proposal for a top-down, Washington-designed Earth Day. But Nelson decided against this approach, instead envisioning a decentralized, grassroots effort where each community would shape their action around local concerns and devise their own events.

This vision was the genius of Earth Day.

The first Earth Day that wasn't

On September 20, 1969, Senator Gaylord Nelson called for Americans to come together the following spring for a day dedicated to environmental education.

Nelson hoped that by adopting the teach-in model employed so successfully by students in anti-war protests and by synchronizing events to occur on one day all across the country, he could stir up environmental passions nationwide and spur action on Capitol Hill. His proposal met with great public enthusiasm, and by November the New York Times predicted this "'D-Day' of the [environmental] movement ... could be a bigger and more meaningful event than the antiwar demonstrations."

But how to pull it off? Nelson and his Senate staff weighed their options. In October, a proposal arrived from Fred Dutton, a heavy-weight in the national Democratic Party. Dutton had served as California Governor Pat Brown's chief of staff, one of President Kennedy's assistant secretaries of state, a speechwriter for President Johnson, and as Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign manager. His Earth Day memo (document at right) gave instructions for turning Nelson's idea into a nationwide campaign.

Dutton imagined an effort resembling a political campaign. There would be a staff director who concocted "a detailed scenario for the entire project." A board of prominent advisors—Dutton suggested the likes of Gloria Steinem, Jesse Jackson, Jacques Cousteau, and Ralph Nader—would lend the project legitimacy. Issue-specific task forces would prepare position papers on particular environmental problems Earth Day activities should address. Student involvement would be critical, but politically risky, so Dutton proposed that the director should work with the National Student Association, screening participants thoroughly. The Washington office would employ, as well, a publicist, fundraiser, and a lawyer. They would need to decide on a name for the event and then publicize it through official posters, buttons, and bumper stickers. They would commission the production of an official documentary and song to be presented at each teach-in.

Most important in Dutton's proposal would be the media blitz in the run-up to Earth Day: major concerts performed by famous acts, major polluters identified and denounced, a televised teach-in, and headline-making demonstrations. The hype these national measures would created would prove more important, Dutton believed, than "the quality of the local teach-ins" themselves.

Nelson's democratic vision

While much of Dutton's strategy was useful, Nelson rejected the top-down structure of the Dutton proposal. He chose not to be in charge. From his travels around the country and his study of the variety of ecological crises facing the nation, he believed that a one-size-fits-all Earth Day would be unsuccessful. Each community should be allowed to make Earth Day what they needed it to be.

When his Senate aides became overwhelmed answering the sacks of letters in support of Earth Day, Nelson did assemble a national office. It was not a command center but rather a hub of grassroots activity. In place of a director, he hired a coordinator, Denis Hayes. Rather than dictate to campuses and communities the content of their Earth Day events, the national office helped to promote the thousands of activities already being planned by individuals and groups across the country.

Nelson speaks in Denver April 22, 1970

Nelson speaks to an overflow audience in Denver on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Nelson believed that a decentralized, grassroots organization would guarantee the success of Earth Day.

Instead of announcing which environmental problems would be the targets and which polluters were to be vilified, Nelson and his team encouraged citizens to decide these matters for themselves. They urged high school student organizers to ask:

"What are the particular pollution problems in your area? What needs to be done to alleviate them? How do you make the public aware?"

Nelson cared little even about an official name. He continued calling it the "national environmental teach-in" through the spring of 1970, while the press used an array of monikers right up through April. The variety of names reflected the diffuse nature of the event, as millions of Americans concocted Earth Days of their own design.

A Grassroots Victory

Though the national office worked hard to support local endeavors, Nelson later reflected that Earth Day needed few if any of the directives and hierarchy Dutton originally proposed in the memo. Nelson said:

"By mid-February, some 2 1/2 months after opening our Washington office, the grass roots momentum was so great I even considered closing our office because of a shortage of funds ... success was assured with or without a national office."

The astounding results on April 22,1970 endorsed Nelson's wise decision to avoid centralized control. While Dutton had proposed reaching out to a mere 1,000 schools and working with 40 colleges, on the first Earth Day an estimated 10,000 schools and 2,000 colleges held a rich variety of grassroots events.

Nelson would be the creator of Earth Day but not its choreographer. His belief in a decentralized, grassroots organization had guaranteed its success.

the small national coordination office newsletter, one of the last before the first Earth Day

From the Nelson Collection. The cover of the March 3, 1970 issue of the newsletter published by Environmental Teach-In, Inc., the organization Nelson established to coordinate, but not run, Earth Day.

Teach-in leaders who wrote to the office received this weekly publication describing what other leaders were planning, excerpting the latest environmental science findings, and listing useful books and films on ecological topics.

a UAW newsletter describes incorporation of environmental priorities in 1970

Nelson's decentralized and inclusive vision for Earth Day allowed groups to observe it as they wished. Here the United Auto Workers incorporate environmental goals into their broader agenda at the UAW national convention in Atlantic City, N.J., during the week of April 20, 1970.