A living tradition: "debate and controversy are vital"

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These are the remarks Gaylord Nelson prepared for the 25th anniversary of the first Earth Day.

Nelson was then the counselor of the Wilderness Society, and had kept up a public presence on the previous Earth Day anniversaries. Beginning in 1971, he urged communities to put an annual "Earth Week" on school calendars. While the original Earth Day's emphasis was on sending a political message to legislatures, Nelson beleived that future Earth Weeks should advocate environmental education. An ecologically literate public, said Nelson, would do more than even the landmark legislation of the "Environmental Decade" to assure a sustainable future.

In this 25th anniversary speech Nelson insists that the nation much "focus its attention and energies on nurturing a conservation generation imbued with a conservation ethic."

Nelson's view on the value of environmental education was influenced by Aldo Leopold, a forest and wildlife specialist and major environmental author. Leopold introduced the new study of wildlife ecology to the University of Wisconsin and wrote the watershed book A Sand County Almanac. This elegantly written record changed how Nelson and countless others thought about the relationship between humans and the land.

Environmental education lay at the core of Leopold's mission. "Perhaps the most serious obstacle impending the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land," he wrote in his famous essay, "The Land Ethic."[1] He added, "An understanding of ecology does not necessarily originate in courses bearing ecological labels; it is quite as likely to be labeled geography, botany, agronomy, history, or economics. That is as it should be, but whatever the label, ecological training is scarce."

Nelson, half a century later, committed himself to putting Leopold's ideas to work, beginning in the classroom. "I wish he were still alive," the new Governor Nelson told a newspaper after his inauguration in 1959, "I'd put him in a job where he could do something."[2]


1 Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p.223-224

2 Nelson quoted in Thomas R. Huffman, Protectors of the Land and Water: Environmentalism in Wisconsin, 1961-1968, p.20