On April 22, 1970, America celebrated the
very first Earth Day. It was a time when cities were buried
under their own smog and polluted rivers caught fire. Now
36 years later, Earth Day is being celebrated around the globe.
Through the combined efforts of the U.S. government, grassroots
organizations, and people everywhere, what started as a day
of national environmental recognition has evolved into a world-wide
campaign to protect our global environment.
Gaylord Nelson, former Wisconsin governor, U.S. senator and
Earth Day founder
All About Earth Day-An Article by the creator
of Earth Day Senator
What was the purpose of Earth Day? How did
it start? These are the questions I am most frequently asked.
Actually, the idea for Earth Day evolved over a period of
seven years starting in 1962. For several years, it had been
troubling me that the state of our environment was simply
a non-issue in the politics of the country. Finally, in November
1962, an idea occurred to me that was, I thought, a virtual
cinch to put the environment into the political "limelight"
once and for all. The idea was to persuade President Kennedy
to give visibility to this issue by going on a national conservation
tour. I flew to Washington to discuss the proposal with Attorney
General Robert Kennedy, who liked the idea. So did the President.
The President began his five-day, eleven-state conservation
tour in September 1963. For many reasons the tour did not
succeed in putting the issue onto the national political agenda.
However, it was the germ of the idea that ultimately flowered
into Earth Day.
I continued to speak on environmental issues
to a variety of audiences in some twenty-five states. All
across the country, evidence of environmental degradation
was appearing everywhere, and everyone noticed except the
political establishment. The environmental issue simply was
not to be found on the nation's political agenda. The people
were concerned, but the politicians were not.
After President Kennedy's tour, I still hoped
for some idea that would thrust the environment into the political
mainstream. Six years would pass before the idea that became
Earth Day occurred to me while on a conservation speaking
tour out West in the summer of 1969. At the time, anti-Vietnam
War demonstrations, called "teach-ins," had spread to college
campuses all across the nation. Suddenly, the idea occurred
to me - why not organize a huge grassroots protest over what
was happening to our environment?
I was satisfied that if we could tap into
the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse
the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause,
we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue
onto the political agenda. It was a big gamble, but worth
a try. At a conference in Seattle in September 1969, I announced
that in the spring of 1970 there would be a nationwide grassroots
demonstration on behalf of the environment and invited everyone
to participate. The wire services carried the story from coast
to coast. The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters.
Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from
all across the country. The American people finally had a
forum to express its concern about what was happening to the
land, rivers, lakes, and air - and they did so with spectacular
exuberance. For the next four months, two members of my Senate
staff, Linda Billings and John Heritage, managed Earth Day
affairs out of my Senate office.
Five months before Earth Day, on Sunday, November
30, 1969, The New York Times carried a lengthy article by
Gladwin Hill reporting on the astonishing proliferation of
"Rising concern about the environmental crisis
is sweeping the nation's campuses with an intensity that may
be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war
in Vietnam…a national day of observance of environmental problems…is
being planned for next spring…when a nationwide environmental
'teach-in'…coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord
Nelson is planned…."
It was obvious that we were headed for a spectacular
success on Earth Day. It was also obvious that grassroots
activities had ballooned beyond the capacity of my U.S. Senate
office staff to keep up with the telephone calls, paper work,
inquiries, etc. In mid-January, three months before Earth
Day, John Gardner, Founder of Common Cause, provided temporary
space for a Washington, D.C. headquarters. I staffed the office
with college students and selected Denis Hayes as coordinator
Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous
response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time
nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the
thousands of schools and local communities that participated.
That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized
Here for a Timeline of Earth Day Progress from 1970 to Present
Here to Learn more about Senator Gaylord Nelson