History of Earth Day

By Senator Gaylord Nelson, Founder of Earth Day

Excerpts from Catalyst Conference Speech, University of Illinois, October 6, 1990

For years prior to Earth Day it had been troubling to me that the critical matter of the state of the environment was simply a non-issue in the politics of our country. The President, the Congress, the economic power structure of the nation and the press paid almost no attention to this issue, which is of such staggering import to our future. It was clear that until we somehow got this matter into the political arena, until it became part of the national political dialogue, not much would ever be achieved. The puzzling challenge was to think up some dramatic event that would focus national attention on the environment. Finally in 1962 an idea occurred to me that was, I thought, a virtual cinch to get the environment into the political limelight once and for all.

That idea was to persuade President Kennedy to give national visibility to this issue by going on a nationwide conservation tour, spelling out in dramatic language the serious and deteriorating condition of our environment, and proposing a comprehensive agenda to begin addressing the problem. No President had ever made such a tour and I was satisfied this would finally force the issue onto the nation's political agenda... The President liked the idea and began his conservation tour in the Fall of 1963. Senators Hubert Humphrey, Gene McCarthy, Joe Clark and I accompanied the President on the first leg of his trip to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. For many reasons the tour didn't achieve what I had hoped for - it did not succeed in making the environment a national political issue. However, it was the germ of the idea that ultimately flowered into Earth Day.

While the President's tour was a disappointment, I continued to hope for some idea that would thrust the environment into the political mainstream. Six years would pass before the idea for Earth Day occurred to me in late July 1969, while on a conservation speaking tour out West.

At that time there was a great deal of turmoil ont he college campuses over the Vietnam War. Protests, called anti-war teach-ins, were being widely held on campuses across the Nation. On a flight from Santa Barbara to the University of California/Berkeley, I read an article on the teach-ins and it suddenly occurred to me, why not have a nationwide teach-in on the environment? That was the origin of Earth Day.

I returned to Washington in early August, raised the funds to get Earth Day started, and prepared letters to the 50 governors and mayors of all the major cities explaining the event and requesting that they issue Earth Day Proclamations. I sent an Earth Day article to all of the college newspapers explaining the event and one to Scholastic Magazine, which went to most of our grade and high schools.

In a speech given at Seattle in September I formally announced that there would be a national environmental teach-in sometime in the Spring of 1970. The wire services carried the story nationwide. The response was dramatic. It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all over the Nation. Using my Senate staff, I ran Earth Day activities out of my office. By December the movement had expanded so rapidly that it became necessary to open an office in downtown Washington. The movement was growing so fast that my Senate office couldn't continue serving as a national clearinghouse for Earth Day inquiries and activities.

After interviewing some 15 or 16 college students I selected Denis Hayes to manage the Washington Earth Day office and oversee the organizing of college campuses. For a stipend and expenses we hired a group of conscientous college students who did an excellent job organizing on college campuses.

Earth Day achieved what I had hoped for. The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently into the political arena. It was a gamble, but it worked. An estimated twenty million people participated in peaceful demonstrations across the country. Ten thousand grade schools and high schools, two thousand colleges and one thousand communities were involved.

It was truly an astonishing grassroots explosion. The people cared and Earth Day became the first opportunity they ever had to join in a nationwide demonstration to send a big message to the politicians - a message to tell them to wake up and do something.

It worked because of the spontaneous, enthusiastic response at the grassroots. Nothing like it had ever happened before. While our organizing on college campuses was very well done, the thousand of events in our schools and communities were self-generated at the local level. We had neither the time nor the resources to organize ten thousand grade schools and high schools and one thousand communities that participated. They simply organized themselves. That was the remarkable thing that became Earth Day.

Earth Day

Earth Day, event first observed internationally on April 22, 1970, to emphasize the necessity for the conservation of the world's natural resources. Starting as a student-led campus movement, initially observed on March 21, Earth Day has become a major educational and media event. Environmentalists use it as an occasion to sum up current environmental problems of the planet: the pollution of air, water, and soils; the destruction of habitats; the decimation of hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species; and the depletion of nonrenewable resources. The emphasis is on solutions that will slow and possibly reverse the negative effects of human activities. Such solutions include recycling of manufactured materials, fuel and energy conservation, banning the use of harmful chemicals, halting the destruction of major habitats such as rain forests, and protecting endangered species.