Earth Day may have been Gaylord Nelson’s idea, but American citizens made it happen.
Energized by Nelson’s proposal in the fall of 1969, people wasted no time in organizing teach-ins and events for their communities. Almost immediately after the first wire story appeared, Nelson began receiving requests for information.
Week after week the numbers of letters and calls to his office increased. He was overwhelmed by the pure enthusiasm he received from elementary school students, high school teachers, churches, and community groups. Nelson quickly realized the national day of teach-ins was far beyond boundaries of college campuses. However, a bigger Earth Day meant a harder day to organize, and he knew he and his Senate staff could not do it alone.
Choosing Not to Be in Charge
The letters poured in. In November 1969, Nelson assembled a steering committee of prominent scientists, academics, environmentalists, and student leaders, and tapped California Republican Paul McCloskey as co-chair to signal the effort’s bipartisanship. This committee acted as a clearinghouse and resource for Earth Day organizers.
Where to start? Fred Dutton, a veteran Democratic Party operative, drafted for Nelson a proposal (pdf) to control the National Teach-In like a political campaign: a manager, a detailed platform and position papers, standardized teach-in curricula, carefully vetted student volunteers, fundraisers, and even a official documentary, song, poster, and button. Also proposed by Dutton was a savvy team of public relations specialists who prized media hype over the content of local teach-ins.
Nelson firmly rejected this notion that he would be in charge of the National Teach-In. A one-size-fits-all Earth Day, controlled by Washington, seemed to Nelson fundamentally opposed to his original idea: grassroots political action. Nelson took much of Dutton’s advice in office organization and fundraising, but rather than proposing a collection of synchronized college teach-ins, he began encouraging all Americans to get together on Earth Day “in any way they want.”
From National Teach-In to Earth Day
As a further sign of his willingness to cede control of his idea to citizens, Nelson established an independent non-profit office in Washington, D.C. called Environmental Teach-In, Inc. to support citizen events and answer the avalanche of letters burying his staff. Nelson hired former Stanford student president and then-Harvard Law School student Denis Hayes. Hayes in turn hired a team of energetic activists with experience in the civil rights movement, the Chicano movement, and the Robert F. Kennedy presidential campaign.
Like the hundreds of thousands of busy organizers around the country, Environmental Teach-In, Inc. also took Nelson’s idea and ran with it. They stressed that April 22 should “be more than a day of fruitless talking,” and so they named their newsletter Action: April 22. The group produced resource packets, project ideas, posters, and encouraged citizens to write to their legislators about the environment.
Environmental Teach-In, Inc. published a full-page advertisement in the New York Times on January 18, 1970 (pdf) announcing their group and soliciting donations. In this article, they gave the National Teach-In a new name: Earth Day.
A Diverse Coalition of Supporters
The energetic involvement of youthful college idealists in Earth Day events attracted the most media attention and ensured the day’s success. But 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.
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 GASP (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) — which 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.
Organizing at the Grassroots
“Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level,” reflected Gaylord Nelson. “It organized itself.”
Indeed, Nelson and the Washington D.C. coordinating office, Environmental Teach-in Inc., could never have produced — in 7 months with a tiny budget of $124,000 — an event of Earth Day’s national scale and individualized form.
While Nelson’s national office did organize a few events itself, its primary work became cataloging as best it could the extent and variety of Earth Day plans. As letters from organizers inundated the office, staffers publicized these local actions in press releases and their newsletter, which served as an idea bank and gave those at the grassroots a sense of being united in a nationwide effort.
However, it was the grassroots — not Washington — that gave Earth Day its profound impact. In fact, when funds from their donation campaign ran thin in February, Nelson considered closing the Washington office. The frenzied Earth Day work of individuals in their own in cities and towns across the country had convinced him “success was assured.”
Perhaps the most powerful testimony to Earth Day’s grassroots foundation was the involvement of elementary and high schools. Although not part of Nelson’s original vision and a minor part of the Washington office’s focus, schools would end up the most common site of Earth Day action.
The National Education Association (NEA) estimated that 10 million students took part in Earth Day events in nearly every one of the country’s school districts. Students and educators made Earth Day their own.
Rozanne Weissman, working in the NEA’s public relations department, had heard from students their concern about ecological matters and desire for environmental education. When she heard about Earth Day in October 1969, she quickly sent a memo out to state NEA journal editors calling their attention to it and later secured an interview with Nelson, which she also sent out as well. She also urged editors to help teachers pinpoint local sources of pollution and opportunities for environmental education.
As a result, the Nelson interview and fruitful curriculum suggestions ended up in the mailboxes of hundreds of thousands of NEA’s members.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association published ten tips for planning a teach-in and stressed teaching students about the 1948 fatal air pollution event in Donora, Pennsylvania, while in New York the Bureau of Education suggested principals schedule field trips to the American Natural History Museum’s new exhibit “Can Man Survive?”
Apart from schools, it was millions of Americans in civic clubs, neighborhoods, small governments, churches, families, and industry who now imagined what Earth Day could be in their community — and made that vision a reality.