April 13, 2012

Origins of the Modern Environmental Movement

"Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human being and all living creatures." - Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day 1970

In the coming week, cities across the country will celebrate Earth Day, hosting local events focusing on education and environmental awareness, providing a day for family fun and entertainment.

What we have come to expect and anticipate in April each year might never have come to pass, however, were it not for the vision and tireless work of a junior senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson.  

In the 1960's, concepts like environmentalism, conservation and wilderness designation were yet to gain any national awareness, let alone momentum.  But that did not deter Senator Nelson.  In his first Senate speech, supporting a bill banning phosphates in detergents, he insisted that "we need this...just as desperately as we need the defense against atomic missiles." His pleas fell on deaf ears as his fellow legislators voted down the bill, just as similar pleas could not win him a single co-sponsor for his 1966 bill banning DDT

And while he was able to lure President Kennedy to take a "conservation tour" of Wisconsin and the West in 1963, he watched helplessly as the President, the press, and audiences preferred to debate taxes and Cold War politics. 

He would need a new plan if he hoped to get attention in Washington!

The idea came to him in August of 1969 after surveying the devastating oil spill in Santa Barbara.  College students had been successfully staging teach-ins to educate their campuses about the war in Vietnam.  What if students used the same forum to raise environmental awareness, and what if they coordinate their events to fall on the same day, grabbing headlines and sending a strong environmental message to the Capitol?  Senator Nelson proposed the idea in front of a small, fledgling conservation group in Seattle and a short wire story broadcast the idea.

Seven months later Nelson's idea resulted in the largest demonstration in U.S. history.  Millions of Americans observed Earth Day in April 1970, whether in groups of tens of thousands in New York or Philadelphia or with events big and small at thousands of colleges and schools across the country. While Nelson with his staff worked tirelessly to promote the day and coordinate select events, he would grow fond of saying Earth Day "organized itself." Nelson encouraged all Americans to celebrate the day "in any way they want." 

So in the coming week, where ever you live, take a moment and celebrate Earth Day in any way you want.  And however you choose to celebrate, remember the challenges of the past and make a personal commitment to ensuring your future and your children's future includes an "...environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human being and all living creatures."

Learn more about the work of Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day.