A diverse coalition of supporters
A page from an October 1970 United Auto Workers newsletter in the Nelson Collection. The UAW was an early supporter, both in donations and in enthusiasm, of Earth Day. The UAW broadened their focus to include in-plant environmental pollution.
The energetic involvement of youthful college idealists in Earth Day events attracted the most media attention and ensured the day's success. But the Nelson Collection documents reveal that students accounted for just one group in a richly diverse collection of political interests who planned and held Earth Day events. Many of these groups, like labor unions and scientists, had never crossed paths before Earth Day. Nelson was inspired by this diverse participation, and the Collection includes documents from the following groups:
Middle-class women, whom had been prominent proponents of anti-pollution measures since the Progressive era, were represented on Earth Day by established national institutions like the League of Women Voters as well as new local groups like HIPS in Illinois or Missoula, Montana's G.A.S.P. (Gals Against Smoke and pollution). Some articulated a unique concern about environmental threats to domestic life. Others found new opportunities for personal political expression in the new environmental movement.
Even before Earth Day 1970, environmental concerns had the attention of a few labor unions which worked to limit air pollution, water contamination, and workers' exposure to hazardous chemicals. The United Auto Workers (UAW) — who had had a conservation department for some time — and the AFL-CIO — new to the environmental cause — made the first donations to the teach-in project, and several other unions became involved for the first time around Earth Day, lending their strength to environmentalism going forward.
Churches and religious groups, like most unions, took up ecological problems for the first time in 1970, articulating environmental activism as a theological necessity and sponsoring symposia like "Man's Environment: God's Creation," hosted by University of Wisconsin Campus Ministries and featuring a mixed panel of scientists and clergy.
Liberal Democrats across the nation had already lobbied for environmental reforms as did Nelson. Earth Day now became part of their campaign to use government to achieve for all Americans the livable cities and clean air and water that even an increasingly affluent middle class could not buy at any price.
Scientists seized the opportunity to influence policy and change public perceptions. Scientists ranged from the nationally-known biologist Paul Ehrlich, who sat on Nelson's environmental Action, Inc. national environmental teach-in steering committee, to the local University of Wisconsin chemist Walter Blaedel, who led an Earth Day workshop on Madison's sewerage district.
In addition, an array of white-collar professional groups, including public health administrators, industry, urban and regional planners, and architects, participated in Earth Day. Throughout the 1960s they had increasingly been researching and solving problems that came to be associated with the "ecological crisis." On Earth Day, professional groups joined the legions of speech makers, discussants, and marchers.
Venerable conservation groups, like the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society, found in Earth Day a new audience for their traditional call for land, water, and wildlife protection. Environmental societies also began to expand their agendas into emerging ecological concerns.
While some of these groups had a long history of fighting particular environment battles, Earth Day drew strength from this convergence as they found common enemies and common goals. This diversity of concerns now brought a unified environmental movement into existence.
View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic
Households Involved in Pollution Solutions: women in Illinois organize for Earth Day
Rev. Gavin of Wisconsin writes to Sen Nelson about what his church is doing for environmental activism
A list of groups, companies, and individuals to who contributed money for Nelson's national environmental teach-in project, and the corporations whose checks were rejected
Speech text of a Weyerhaeuser chairman as he discusses industry's role in environmental problems and solutions, and the hopes for the national environmental teach-ins
Related webpage about the surprising environmental activities of the United Auto Workers