The living tradition of Earth Day

A flyer distributed on the National Mall in Washington DC for the 25th anniversary of Earth Day commemoration

A flyer distributed on the National Mall in Washington DC during the 25th anniversary ceremonies of Earth Day.

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After he arrived in the Senate in 1963, Gaylord Nelson sought a way to convince his colleagues of the severity of the ecological crises the nation faced. After a long string of failed attempts, he proposed Earth Day 1970 as a way to "get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy."

It worked.

In that fall's midterm election, voters booted out several officials with poor environmental records, and Congress went on to make the 1970s the "Environmental Decade" by establishing the bulk of today's environmental regulatory authority through the passage of 28 pieces of legislation, including the Endangered Species Act, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and amendments strengthening the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air and Water Acts — in addition to the dozens of laws passed protecting natural resources and expanding public lands.

Later in 1970, when Nelson drafted a resolution to designate the third week of April of each year as Earth Week, half of his Senate colleagues lined up to sign on as co-sponsors. Earth Day had worked to create a new environmental political agenda. Earth Week would continue that work in the decades to come.

Less obvious is the effect that Earth Day had on its millions of participants. For many youngsters, it was their first exposure to environmental topics in the classroom. As a result of the efforts of thousands of educators, elementary and high schools took responsibility for producing ecologically-literate students, some of whom would go on to colleges that in turn created new programs and courses in environmental science. The University of Wisconsin opened its Institute for Environmental Studies mere months after Earth Day.

What Nelson called "the biggest town meeting in the nation's history" also turned many participants into committed activists. Dorothy Bradley, a young woman living in Bozeman, Montana, had early in 1970 helped fight the opening of public lands to copper mining. She and some friends heard about Earth Day and eagerly participated in the local organizing efforts. During Earth Day itself, she came to the realization that the government must step up its environmental efforts. Surprising even herself, she submitted her name to run for state assembly the very next day and, at age 23, became the only woman in the Montana House of Representatives.

April 22 in the years that followed took various forms and directions. Nelson lobbied for Earth Week to be a time schools reserved each year for environmental education. Large-scale events marked the 20th, 25th anniversary, and 30th anniversaries of the first Earth Day, with organizers successfully reaching out to millions of people around the world. Just as the 20th anniversary of Earth Day was observed by 1.8 million people gathered on Central Park's Great Lawn, it was also observed by small groups of people gathered in classrooms and communities everywhere in their own way.

In 1990, a crowd of 800,000 gathered on the National Mall to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. Nelson insisted to the crowd: "I don't want to have to come limping back here twenty years from now on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day…and have the embarrassing responsibility of telling your sons and daughters that you didn't do your duty — that you didn't become the conservation generation that we hoped for."

Although Nelson passed away in 2005, his challenge for the modern environmental movement lives on as we reflect on four decades of Earth Day and the struggles ahead.

View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic:

A letter from Dorothy Bradley about how Earth Day changed her life and her state

Nelson's speech on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day: "Where do we go from here?"

Nelson's remarks from 1991 to a Washington Post reporter on the increasing popularity of Earth Day after two decades