The upcoming 40th anniversary of Earth Day is a testament to Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin who conceived of the celebration during a 1969 tour of the West. Earth Day turned out to be a brilliant idea, but Nelson went on to accomplish even more, shaping environmental protections that many of us take for granted today.
Nelson was elected senator in 1962, following 10 years as a state legislator and four years as Wisconsin’s governor. An environmentalist before the term even existed, his first speech in Congress proposed banning phosphates in detergents that were choking lakes and rivers with rafts of foam. He also co-sponsored the Wilderness Act and proposed banning the carcinogenic pesticide DDT.
His was an era of rising environmental awareness. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, educated millions about how pesticides were killing the nation’s birds. In 1964, the Wilderness Act overwhelmingly passed Congress to become the strongest protection for federal lands.
But it was also an era of startling environmental degradation. Pollution from cars and industry led to fatal smog events, including a 1965 episode that killed 80 New Yorkers. In January 1969, an oil spill near Santa Barbara blackened 30 miles of California’s coastline. Six months later, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River burst into flames, one of many "river fires" caused by oil and chemical pollution.
For Nelson, the environmental threats coalesced with the era’s political upheaval. Traveling the West in 1969, he was inspired by anti-Vietnam war campus "teach-ins." That summer, in Seattle, he announced plans for a similar, nationwide demonstration that would eventually become Earth Day. Nelson’s staff planned the event from his office, and by early 1970, grassroots efforts were under way throughout the country.
"That was the amazing thing about Earth Day," Nelson later wrote. "It organized itself."
Bolstered by the groundswell, Nelson presented an "environmental agenda" for the nation in a January 1970 Senate speech. It put forward an ambitious plan to make the 1970s a decade of environmental action. "America has bought environmental disaster on a national installment plan: Buy affluence now and let future generations pay the price," said Nelson, in words no less meaningful today.
He then presented 11 measures he hoped would create what he called a national "ecological ethic." Citing the powerlessness of the era’s citizens to combat pollution, he proposed a constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to a clean environment. He called for environmental curricula at every level of public education, and he urged a ban on the worst pesticides, the protection of wetlands, investment in mass transit and laws to protect and promote clean air.
As Nelson pressed his agenda, the Earth Day movement grew, and on April 22, 1970, over 20 million Americans -- fully 10 percent of the population -- participated in demonstrations and teaching events. Rallies occurred in scores of cities, over 12,000 schools held events and Congress recessed in honor of the day. The whole thing was as American as apple pie.
The demonstrations started the modern environmental movement by uniting previously disparate groups fighting for clean air, water and lands conservation. They’re also credited for passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, one of our most important laws. The act created the first national air-quality standards and continues to protect the air in national parks, wilderness areas and cities. The EPA says the Clean Air Act has saved tens of thousands of lives and prevented $20 trillion in health-care costs. Furthermore, the Supreme Court recently ruled that the act can apply to greenhouse gases, which may help us combat our greatest environmental challenge, climate change.
In the wake of Earth Day, leaded gasoline, DDT and other pollutants were banned. Congress passed landmark environmental laws still essential today, including the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, 1973 Endangered Species Act, 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, and others. By the time Nelson left Congress in 1981, key parts of his environmental agenda had become law.
Afterward, Nelson became a counselor for The Wilderness Society, and in 1995 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2004, a year before his death at age 89, an interviewer asked why he continued his environmental efforts.
"Our work’s not done," he answered.
This year, over a half-billion people in 170 countries will celebrate Earth Day. In this country alone, 80 percent of schools will host activities. But as Gaylord Nelson said, the work’s not done. Global climate change, ocean acidification and collapsing biodiversity are unprecedented problems. It’s clear that saving life on Earth requires a host of new environmental heroes.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a wilderness ranger in Alaska during the summer and lives now in Whitefish, Montana.