By Bill Christofferson
On a remarkable spring day in 1970, environmental activism entered the mainstream of American life and politics.
It was Earth Day, and the American environmental movement was forever changed. Twenty million people – ten per cent of the United States population – mobilized to show their support for a clean environment. They attended marches, rallies, concerts and teach-ins. They planted trees and picked up tons of trash. They confronted polluters and held classes on environmental issues. They signed petitions and wrote letters to politicians. They gathered in parks, on city streets, in campus auditoriums, in small towns and major cities. The weather cooperated; in most of the country, it was a clear and sunny day. The news media also cooperated, and covered the event extensively.
Fifth Avenue in New York City was closed to traffic for two hours, and a photo of tens of thousands of New Yorkers strolling and jamming the temporary pedestrian mall dominated the front page of the next day’s New York Times. An estimated one hundred thousand people took part during the day in activities at Union Square, the center for speeches and teach-ins. Mayor John Lindsay set the tone in a brief speech, saying that environmental issues might sound complicated, but it all boiled down to a simple question: “Do we want to live or die?”
In Chicago, the sun seemed pale and distant on Earth Day, and the city’s monitoring devices showed levels of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere above the danger point for infants and the elderly. Several thousand persons attended a rally at Civic Center Plaza, where Illinois Attorney General William Scott declared that he would sue the City of Milwaukee for dumping sewage into Lake Michigan. The Chicago Tribune
ran front page side-by-side photos taken during and after the rally, showing an amazing sight. When the demonstrators left, “there was no post-rally litter remaining to be cleaned up,” the newspaper reported.
At the Washington Monument, a crowd of ten thousand gathered to hear folk music from Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs and speeches by Senator Edmund Muskie, muckraker I.F. Stone, Chicago Seven defendant Rennie Davis, and others. Earlier, 1,700 people had marched to the Interior Department offices to leave symbolic puddles of oil on the doorstep, and some Connecticut Girl Scouts in canoes had pulled tires and debris from the Potomac River. In Philadelphia, twenty-five thousand people heard Muskie call for “an environmental revolution” and criticize government priorities that spent “twenty times as much on Vietnam as we are to fight water pollution, and twice as much on the supersonic transport as we are to fight air pollution.”
Congress had adjourned so its members could go home and give Earth Day speeches. For many, it was the first time they had given an environmental speech, and they drew heavily on material from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day’s founder (pictured above). At least twenty-two U.S. Senators participated, as did governors and local officials across the nation. The governors of New York and New Jersey signed laws creating new state environmental agencies. The Massachusetts legislature passed an environmental bill of rights. President Nixon, through an aide, said he had said enough about his concern about pollution and would be watching, rather than participating in Earth Day, and hoping it would lead to an ongoing anti-pollution campaign. Nixon had, in fact, in his State of the Union speech three months earlier, called for a national fight against air and water pollution.
There were plenty of theatrics, dramatic gestures, and attention-getting stunts. So many students in Omaha, Nebraska wore gas masks that the supply ran out. Indian sitar music greeted the dawn over Lake Mendota at the University of Wisconsin, accompanied by “an apology to God.” In San Francisco, “Environmental Vigilantes” dumped oil into a reflecting pool at Standard Oil Company offices to protest oil spills. At Boston’s Logan Airport, a group of young people was arrested for blocking a corridor to protest the development of a supersonic transport. A group in Denver gave the Atomic Energy Commission an award – “Environmental Rapist of the Year.”
Automobiles were pounded, demolished, disassembled, and buried. School children and adults alike collected trash and litter from roadsides, parks, streams and lakes. In Ohio, students put “This is a Polluter” stickers on autos, and at Iowa State and Syracuse Universities, students blocked autos from coming onto the campus. In Tacoma, Washington, one hundred students rode down a freeway on horseback to protest auto emissions. In Cleveland, one thousand students filled garbage trucks with trash. In Appalachia, students buried a trash-filled casket. California students cut up their oil company credit cards. In Coral Gables, Florida, a demonstrator paraded with dead fish and a dead octopus in front of a power plant.
But the real focus was the schools. The National Education Association estimated that ten million public school children took part in Earth Day programs. Earth Day organizers said two thousand colleges and ten thousand grade and high schools participated.
In Clear Lake, Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson’s hometown, junior and senior high school students observed Earth Day at a school assembly with speeches, songs, and skits, then cleaned up more than 250 bags full of litter from the streets and highways in and around the village. A photo of young “demonstrators” with picket signs ran on page one of The Clear Lake Star the next week.
Many businesses put their best faces forward and joined the call for a cleaner earth. In New York, Consolidated Edison supplied the rakes and shovels used by school children cleaning up Union Square, and provided an electrically powered bus to take Mayor Lindsay around the city. Scott Paper, Texas Gulf Sulphur, Sun Oil, Rex Chainbelt and other companies used the occasion to announce projects to clean up or control pollution. Continental Oil introduced four new cleaner gasolines, ALCOA ran newspaper ads touting a new anti-pollution process at its plants, and Republic Steel sent twenty-five company executives to speak at high schools and colleges.
The business participation drew a mixed reaction. Organizers said some companies spent more advertising their support of Earth Day than on Earth Day itself. General Electric stockholders met in Minneapolis, to be greeted outside by a protestor dressed as the Grim Reaper and later were confronted in the meeting by a student leader demanding that the company refuse war contracts and use its influence to channel government expenditures into protecting the environment instead.
The nation’s news media were uncertain what to make of Earth Day. Newsweek was bemused, and somewhat dismissive, calling Earth Day “a bizarre nationwide rain dance” and the nation’s “biggest street festival since the Japanese surrendered in 1945.” Time
said the day “had aspects of a secular, almost pagan holiday…” The question, Newsweek
asked, was “whether the whole uprising represented a giant step forward for contaminated Earthmen or just a springtime skipalong.” The event lacked the passion of antiwar and civil rights movements, Newsweek said, and the issues were so unfocused as to give rise to “the kind of nearly unanimous blather usually reserved for the flag.”
Time said the real question was whether the movement was a fad or could sustain the interest and commitment it would take to bring about real change. “Was it all a passing fancy…?” The New York Times asked in a morning-after editorial, then answered its own question: “We think not. Conservation is a cause … whose time has come because life is running out. Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.”
Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day’s founder, framed the question differently. In a four-day speaking tour that took him from New England to the Midwest to the West Coast, Nelson said: “This is not just an issue of survival. Mere survival is not enough. How we survive is the critical issue. . . . Our goal is not just an environment of clean air, and water, and scenic beauty – while forgetting about the Appalachias and the ghettos where our citizens live in America’s worst environment. . . . Our goal is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human creatures and all other living creatures – an environment without ugliness, without ghettoes, without discrimination, without hunger, poverty, or war. Our goal is a decent environment in the deepest and broadest sense.”
A tall order, bordering on Utopian. But on this first Earth Day, anything seemed possible. Nelson, after years of talking quietly, persuasively, and persistently about the environment, had unleashed a whirlwind. Time wondered whether Nelson was “a bit too euphoric”, when he said, in his Earth Day speech in Denver: “Earth Day may be a turning point in American history. It may be the birth date of a new American ethic that rejects the frontier philosophy that the continent was put here for our plunder, and accepts the idea that even urbanized, affluent, mobile societies are interdependent with the fragile, life-sustaining systems of the air, the water, the land.”
But his assessment was reasonably accurate. Others who looked at Earth Day in retrospect agreed that it was a watershed event. Philip Shabecoff, a longtime New York Times environmental reporter, called it “the day environmentalism in the United States began to emerge as a mass social movement.” American Heritage magazine described Earth Day as “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy…American politics and public policy would never be the same again.” Denis Hayes, the national coordinator for Earth Day, later called it the largest organized demonstration in the history of the world.
Nelson, the visionary behind Earth Day, had spent a decade searching for a catalyst to make the environment a prominent part of the nation’s political agenda. As the leading environmentalist in the U.S. Senate, Nelson had given hundreds of speeches on the issue and visited twenty-five states during the 1960s. It was clear to him that there was widespread concern about environmental pollution. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb,” and other important and critical writing about the environment had helped raise awareness. But issues closer to home were what energized people. Even environmental politics are local. Almost everyone had a cause, a personal connection, some special project or concern, a reason to care about the environment. It wasn’t all about Lake Erie dying or the Cuyahoga River catching fire or the Santa Barbara oil spill or other highly publicized examples of the growing threat to the environment. It was about the local landfill leaching into wells, or the city spraying DDT, or fish dying in the river, or a myriad of other local environmental problems that became apparent during the 1960s. Nelson heard it everywhere he went. What was needed, he decided, was something dramatic, “a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and finally force this issue permanently into the political arena.”
That was the genius of Earth Day – tapping the wellspring of environmental concern that was bubbling just below the surface of the national consciousness. When it happened, “It was truly an astonishing grassroots explosion,” Nelson said. “The people cared and Earth Day became the first opportunity they ever had 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 reception at the grassroots. Nothing like it had ever happened before. While our organizing on college campuses was very well done, the thousands of events in our schools and communities were self-generated at the local level.”
That it should have been Nelson who had the inspiration should have been no surprise. He had spent his life “in a career that, like a planet hooked in orbit around its star, never strayed far from a central concern over resources and the quality of the environment.”
[Excerpt from "The Man From Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Sen. Gaylord Nelson," by Bill Christofferson, published by University of Wisconsin Press, copyright 2004.) Photo by Fritz Albert. Do something on Earth Day.