Tuesday, April 22, marks the 44th celebration of Earth Day. Earth Day is a day that calls attention to the environment and causes us to look at our little green and blue planet floating in space, which we often take for granted.
Earth Day started on April 22, 1970. Before that time, factories could dump wastes and toxic chemicals into the waterways and belch pollution into the skies, and no one would bat an eye. The environment was simply a non-issue. People were more concerned with the War in Vietnam, “Red” communist countries, and the Beatles, than what was happening in their own backyards.
Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson did notice, however.
In 1962, he convinced President Kennedy to go on a National Conservation Tour to put the environment on the national agenda. The following year, President Kennedy obliged with a five day, 11 state tour for conservation. While the tour failed to put the issue in the spotlight, Nelson held on to the idea and pursued it further.
Nelson continued to speak about the degradation of the environment, and more and more people were starting to take notice, but the issue still wasn’t on the political agenda. According to the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the percentage of citizens who said clean air and water were one of their top three political priorities increased from 17% in 1965, to 53% in 1970, and yet the issue still wasn’t brought up in Washington.
While Nelson was speaking at a university, he thought of an idea to make the capital take notice of the environment. Those students, protesting the war at the time, were gaining national attention with a type of protest called a “teach-in” and their message was spreading all over campuses nationwide. Nelson realized that what he needed to do to put the environment on the agenda was to start something similar.
In September 1969, while in a conference in Seattle, he called for a national teach-in the following spring. He insisted that the activities of that first Earth Day be put on, not by the government, but by locals in their own communities. His idea was wired across the nation and come April 22 of the following year, the country was ready to celebrate the first Earth Day.
His idea was a success. One out of every 10 Americans nationwide participated in some capacity; a total of 20 million! Earth Day helped springboard the environment on to the national political agenda. Washington saw that there was major public backing for environmental regulations and they did not disappoint.
In December of that same year, Congress and the President signed off on legislature creating the Environmental Protection Agency. They also followed suit with the Clean Water and Clear Air Acts, the passage of the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Protection Act. The environment now had the spotlight that it so badly needed.
As you celebrate Earth Day this week, think about how different the world would be if Gaylord Nelson and the grass roots movement he founded (which became the modern Environmentalist Movement), had not made the world think of a different kind of beetle and of being “green” instead of “red.”
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