Gaylord Nelson was not the retiring type. Departing the Senate at the age of 64, he quickly accepted an invitation to serve as counselor, and public face, of The Wilderness Society, a position he held until his death in 2005. Remaining in the political fray of Washington, he used this platform to continue his environmental advocacy for key battlegrounds such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
Nelson spoke out on the ecological concerns of the moment, such as deforestation in the Pacific Northwest and the decimation of dolphins by tuna fishers. He fought passionately against the attempts of, first, the Reagan and Bush Administrations and, later, Newt Gingrich’s Congress to gut the environmental legislation of the 1970s. He scoffed at the political discourse that put environmental protection in opposition to economic prosperity.
“The economy,” he frequently told audiences, “is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment,” and insisted that “countries must begin considering natural resources as capital.”
At the end of the Cold War, Nelson called for the U.S. and Russia to reallocate resources from their vast military reserves to “husbanding the ecosystem of the planet.” He also lobbied friends in Congress to stand up to the “vintage McCarthyism” of the executive branch following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Nelson in the 1990s gained notoriety in his campaign against overpopulation. The cause had long animated him. Paul Ehrlich, author of the environmental classic book The Population Bomb, had served as an Earth Day advisor to Nelson.
While in the Senate, Nelson had advocated as solutions funding family planning services and reforming urban and suburban land use. Now he pushed instead for the U.S. to significantly shrink its immigration quotas and help other nations establish their own population controls.
This stance elicited rebukes for its inattention to the plight of immigrants and the vast disparity in the ecological footprints of the developed and developing worlds.
Nelson’s Legacy: For Us and Our Future
Education was always at the heart of Gaylord Nelson’s work. He knew early on the success of environmental movement would depend not primarily on budgets or regulations, but on “a new awareness of the ecological bonds between man and his environment.”
This goal was woven into the youth conservation camps his established as governor of Wisconsin, the green jobs across the country he procured funding for as a senator, as well as his National Environmental Education Act. Indeed, it was at the very core of his Earth Day idea.
In the years following the first Earth Day he strove to make its anniversary an annual celebration of ecological education in schools. Thousands of educators shared Nelson’s goal of bolstering environmental literacy.
In 1970, the University of Wisconsin founded its Institute for Environmental Studies — today bearing Nelson’s name — and in 1985 the state legislature made Wisconsin the first state to require environmental education in its elementary and high schools.
President Clinton awarded Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1995 on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. In the White House that day, Nelson reflected with pride that “there has been a sea change in the degree of environmentally educated people in our society. They, in the end, will make the difference.”