by Diane Larson

“This planet is threatened with destruction and we who live in it with death. The heavens reek, the water below are foul, children die in infancy, and we and the world which is our home live on the brink of nuclear annihilation.” Professor Barry Commoner, biologist. Taken from a news broadcast with Walter Cronkite after the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. Cronkite was examining the failures and successes of the first Earth Day celebration of the new National holiday.

Among the counterculture that reigned in the United States during the late 1960s to early 1970s, “Earth Day gave voice to that emerging consciousness, channeling the energy of the anti-war protest movement and putting environmental concerns on the front page,” says EarthDay.org.

The idea for Earth Day came from U.S, Senator Gaylord Nelson. According to EarthDay.org, Nelson became inspired to form an Earth Day “after witnessing that ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California.” But his love of the land and concern for our planet earth to back farther.

Well before the oil spill of 1969, Nelson was an environmentalist. Born in 1916 in the North Woods of Wisconsin, he grew up loving the beauty of the Wisconsin land, and the progressing politics of the state. He got his law degree and went into politics.

According to www.nelsonearthday.net “Through the 1950s, residents [Wisconsin] had grown increasingly concerned with their crowded and dilapidated state parks, the exploitation of public resources by private industry, and the pollution of the state’s waterways. Nelson promised comprehensive reforms and was elected to two terms as governor. In office, he established unprecedented high levels of public funding for education, healthcare, unemployment, highways, and urban and rural development.”

Senator Nelson attempted many things to get the politicians of the day to take up the banner and work with him towards positive changes.  He would go from state to state to discuss the evidence he witnessed of environmental degradation. The other politicians would not get on board.

In 1963 he even took President John F. Kennedy on a five-day eleven state tour, showing the president what was occurring across the states, hoping to get Kennedy’s support. In this initial effort, he did not succeed. 

However, Nelson did get the attention of the American people. Americans saw what was happening to the environment. With the president’s tour a bust, the senator continued to find ways to heighten environmental awareness. 

In 1969, Nelson was on a speaking tour. Concurrent with his talks on the environment, there were demonstrations across the nation, on college campuses, against the Vietnam War. They were having “teach-ins” in college campuses to enlighten people about the war. These movements against the war were growing rapidly and were infused with the energy of the youth across America.

Tapping into this idea of protest, teach-ins and harnessing the energy of the youth seemed to be the answer that Nelson was looking for. He borrowed those concepts and established a grass-roots movement that protested what was happening to the environment. The idea was to generate enough concern that it would force itself into the political agenda of the day. 

What Nelson discovered was what Indian children’s activist, Kailash Satyarthi understood, “The power of youth is the commonwealth of the entire world. The faces of young people are the faces of our past, our present, and our future. No segment in the society can match with the power, idealism, enthusiasm, and courage of the young people.”

The senator’s bet on the energy of our campuses across America and the youth paid off. On November 30, 1969, The New York Times published an article by Gladwin Hill and it contained the following. 

“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 environment ‘teach-in’…coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned…”

Senator Nelson announced his intent to organize a nationwide grassroots movement on behalf of the environment and invited the nation to participate. The first Earth Day exceeded his expectation. 

The first Earth Day happened. There were over 20 million demonstrators and thousands of schools and communities all came together for the cause. About this first Earth Day, Senator Nelson said, “That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself”.