Modest beginnings: Nelson's idea on a plane

Gaylord Nelson state senate photo from Nelson Collection, c. 1957

Wisconsin State Senator Gaylord Nelson in the Wisconsin state capitol building, c. 1954.

Through his years of service as a State Senator, Governor and then U.S. Senator, Nelson developed a strong personal and political agenda for environmental action. He vowed to fight for national environmental protection but found few allies in Washington DC. When he introduced a bill to ban DDT, not one member of the Senate or House joined with him. He spent his first seven years as a senator trying and failing to awaken Congress and presidents to the nation's dire ecological fate. Nelson believed that a day of national teach-ins and events might finally awaken politicians to deep environmental concerns in their own constituencies.

Click the image to view the original photograph and its retouching.

The first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, brought together millions of people and gave rise to the modern American environmental movement. Some of its participants had been fighting for a long time time against ecological degradation; others had been moved to act more recently, perhaps after reading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, seeing televised images of the Santa Barbara oil spill, or confronting suburban sprawl. Earth Day merged an array of concerns into a common cause and a diversity of activists into a powerful political force.

Earth Day was Gaylord Nelson's idea. Born in Clear Lake, Wisconsin in 1916, Nelson grew up in what he called the "magically mysterious" landscape of the North Woods. He learned the sobering tale of how the timber industry had entered the region's white pine forest and "wiped it out in an eyewink of history and left behind fifty years of heartbreak and economic ruin."[1] Devoting his life to politics, he earned national fame as the "Conservation Governor" for his efforts to expand recreation land and preserve the state's natural resources. As he watched municipal trucks shower Maple Bluff, Wisconsin, with the powerful insecticide DDT, his fear for the environment grew—and with it, his resolve.

Elected to the Senate in 1963, Nelson vowed to fight for environmental protection. But in Washington he found few allies. When he introduced a bill to ban DDT, not one member of the Senate or House joined with him. He spent his first seven years as a senator trying and failing to awaken Congress and Presidents to the nation's dire ecological fate. Although President Kennedy made a national conservation speaking tour joined by Nelson, even that failed to arouse much interest in the public, press, or fellow legislators.

Then, in 1969, he came up with a new plan to build a political environmental agenda in Washington. While flying back from touring the ravaged landscapes of California after a huge oil spill, he read an article about "teach-ins" organized by college students and faculty to raise awareness on campus about the Vietnam War.

What if, Nelson wondered, hundreds of colleges across the country hosted environmental teach-ins all at the same time? The grassroots outcry might prove to Washington just how distressed Americans were in every constituency.  He floated this notion in a speech to a fledgling conservation group in Seattle on September 20, 1969, and then again six days later in Atlantic City to a meeting of the United Auto Workers.

Though he had planted the seed, Nelson hardly could imagine what was about to blossom.


1 Gaylord Nelson, America's Last Chance. Waukesha, WI: Country Beautiful, 1970. p.8

View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic:

Nelson writes to CBS News about inaccuracies in their Earth Day reporting and provides details of the exact origins of Earth Day

Video: A 1973 interview with Nelson about Earth Day beginnings and why it's important to continue

Memo from co-organizers of the earliest teach-ins at Ann Arbor that inspired Gaylord Nelson