Earth Day was Gaylord Nelson’s idea.
During his career, he developed a strong personal and political agenda for environmental action. He earned national fame as the “Conservation Governor” for his efforts to expand recreation land and preserve Wisconsin’s natural resources. In Washington, D.C., he vowed to fight for environmental protection despite finding few allies.
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 9, 1969, and then again six days later in Atlantic City to a meeting of the United Auto Workers.
Setting the Record Straight
Learn more about Earth Day’s origins in a letter Gaylord Nelson wrote to the CBS television network in 1971 (pdf). The letter explains how Nelson got the idea for Earth Day, his role in promoting it, and what happened in the year since Earth Day 1970.
Within a few months, the Earth Day idea had become a nationwide grassroots event supported by millions of people. How did this happen so quickly?
The idea’s momentum began with newspapers. The Associated Press and United Press picked up the story in September 1969 and newspapers across the country reprinted Nelson’s proposal.
“Nelson Leads Movement,” the headline in the Manitowoc Herald Times proclaimed. Readers learned of a day when “college scientists, public leaders, students, and faculty to discuss threats to the ecology of the world.” Nelson’s relayed his wish to see programs scheduled at all the nation’s universities.
As wire stories popped up in the next few weeks, the national press took notice.
A small notice in Time on October 10 notified millions of Americans about the teach-in. “Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson is convinced that the hottest growth stick in U.S. protest is conservation,” the article titled “American the Befouled” began. “In fact, he has been toiling to make the nation’s campuses erupt next spring — in a giant, peaceful teach-in about environmental evils.”
Many read these words and immediately got to work planning their own events.
Continuing the Momentum
On November 11, 1969, Nelson and his staff announced that April 22, 1970 — a date chosen to fit best in college schedules between spring break and final exams — would be the day of what they named the “National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment.”
Another flurry of media attention followed. His November Senate newsletter announced the proposal to his Wisconsin constituents. A New York Times article featured a photograph of University of Minnesota students conducting a ceremonial burial of an internal combustion engine and included the prediction that Nelson’s teach-in “could be a bigger and more meaningful even than the antiwar demonstrations.”
Press coverage swelled throughout the winter and into the spring of 1970. Several newspapers and magazines hired reporters to cover the new environmental beat. Life, Newsweek, Time, Fortune, Esquire and other major periodicals published special environmental editions.
Nelson’s teach-in proposal simultaneously gained grassroots support and national publicity from this widespread media attention.
Dawn of the Environmental Decade
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 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. It was a watershed moment, kicking off what is now termed the “Environmental Decade” of radical legislative reforms.
Throughout his life Nelson remained modest about his own contribution but was extremely proud of the nation’s response:
“Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time not the resources to organize the 20 million demonstrators who participated from thousands of schools and local communities. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”