Historian Adam Rome calls Earth Day the “most famous unknown event in modern American history.” Its grassroots nature, spurred by Gaylord Nelson’s wish for Americans to observe it “in any way they want,” makes it impossible to ever fully capture the first Earth Day’s scale and variety. Millions of Americans participated in thousands of communities around the country.
The size of events ranged from small high school assemblies to the hundred-thousand participants who created a “human jam” on New York’s Fifth Avenue and flocked to the open-air carnival in the city’s Union Square.
Tens of thousands congregated in Fairmont Park in Philadelphia. Colleges across the nation held teach-ins, such as Pittsburgh or Ann Arbor, turning Earth Day into a several-day event.
Each Earth Day event nationwide was some combination of festival, political and academic discussions, outlandish theatrics, and coalition building. The common act on April 22 was the speech. Earth Day presented the opportunity to speak at length about local and national environmental problems, and audiences discovered the will and expertise available in their communities to face the challenges ahead.
Earth Day in Madison
Madison’s Earth Day was typical of others in big university towns. Observers assembled at 4:45 a.m. for an “Earth Service” at Picnic Point to greet the sunrise with a Sanskrit invocation and read together from Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Thoreau, and the Bible.
The city and university devoted the whole week to events, including an environmental art show, a film festival, field trips, and dozens of workshops on a array of topics, such as “Food Additives and Cancer,” “Pollution Induced Climate Change,” and “Dane County Land Use Problems.”
Meanwhile, Girl Scouts fanned out across the city to distribute 40,000 pamphlets prepared by University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate students advocating “Household Action” everyone could take to save the planet.
Connections Between Environment and Inequality
Walter Cronkite began the evening’s CBS News special report on April 22, 1970, by describing Earth Day activists as “predominantly young, predominantly white.” But Gaylord Nelson’s speech given in Denver (pdf) that same day told a different story — an environment that also included poverty, hunger, and blight. He did not want the prominence of college students to overshadow the diversity of Earth Day activists and activism.
While white, middle-class activists often spoke of national crises, collective guilt, and solutions involving changes in individual behavior, people of color and working-class participants tended to target local grievances that resulted from systemic inequality.
For example, Albuquerque’s United Mexican American Students marched on a sewage plant stinking up a Latino neighborhood. A working-class mother in southwest Philadelphia arranged a bus tour to bring people to see the refineries that spew smoke down into her community.
And the St. Louis group Black Survival, formed when civil rights activists sought the help of scientists to combat urban environmental hazards, staged scenes depicting the ravages of lead poisoning, smog-induced asthma, and streets overlooked by the city’s sanitation department.
Critical Responses to Earth Day
Earth Day was overwhelmingly applauded as an important national awakening. The peaceful and inclusive nature of Earth Day gatherings were welcomed in the media after the tumult so often associated with student activism and public political events in the 1960s.
Although mainstream skepticism merely questioned whether Earth Day would be all talk, others were more skeptical, painting the environmental agenda as either too radical or not radical enough. These undercurrents of doubt surrounding Earth Day’s politics never produced full-out opposition. Rather, participants in Earth Day included a diverse mix of New Leftists, conservatives, businessmen, citizens, and anticommunists.
Some anti-war protesters felt marginalized as they watched pollution displacing the Vietnam War in newspapers and campus organizing—perhaps the product of a government conspiracy. Others on the left complained to Nelson that environmentalists were not targeting the deeper economic structures responsible for pollution.
Rep. Paul McCloskey claimed that members of Students for a Democratic Society heckled him and Nelson as “fascist pigs.”
In the opposite camp, surreptitious socialist agendas were suspected by others, such as a Milwaukee corporation president who refused to donate to Earth Day because he detected the involvement of “certain militants” interested in “the total overthrow of the business community.”
Several elected officials, egged on by the anti-communist John Birch Society, wondered aloud if it was mere coincidence that the event’s date fell on the birthday of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin.
Conservatives spoke out against environmentalists’ goal to increase public spending and government regulation for the environment. A convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution declared such spending to be “unnecessary and harmful,” thrust upon the nation by exaggeration and “pollution of the mind.”
Similarly, some unions did not view the environmentalist agenda as enough of a priority in the lives of working people to get involved in Earth Day.
The skepticism of some black environmentalists and social justice activists foreshadowed a more important challenge for the future of the modern environmental movement.
Even those who endorsed Earth Day, like the mayor of Gary, Indiana, worried that the new movement would “distract the nation from the human problems of the black and brown American.” This view stemmed from the activities and rhetoric of the college teach-ins, such as when students at San Jose State College—Nelson’s alma mater—performed the burial of a brand new car.
African American students decried such a gaudy display of privilege even in the name of environmentalism. The president of a Philadelphia civil rights organization observed that “the polluted streams they’re talking about we’ve never seen anyway … [but] if we mean polluted sewers, I’m ready to play with that.”
Some activists were able to unite social justice and environmental activism in 1970, yet the divide between the two continues to trouble the modern environmental movement.