1970: Mother Earth finally gets her due with the celebration of the first Earth Day. Historians regard this as the public launch of the modern environmental movement.
In the unslakable thirst for power, wealth and self-aggrandizement, mankind has for centuries shamelessly plundered the planet’s resources. While it’s reasonable to use some of the bounties of the Earth to ensure the survival and progress of the species, the growing ability (not to mention both need and greed) to extract more and more has exacted a heavy toll.
The knowledge that the Earth’s resources are not infinite provided the impetus for conservationists to try to raise awareness among the broader public.
Earth Day, which was founded by Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin), not only heralded the beginning of the environmental movement but became one of its enduring symbols. Its celebration every April affords the chance to reflect on both the successes and failures of the movement.
Nelson, who at the age of 14 led a campaign to plant trees along the roads in his native Clear Lake, Wisconsin, emerged as a major voice for conservation when he joined the U.S. Senate in 1962. He found a sympathetic ear in President John F. Kennedy, and the seeds for Earth Day — and the environmental movement in general — can rightly be said to have been planted during JFK’s administration.
Nelson found his inspiration for Earth Day in the university teach-ins popular during the Vietnam War. If students could be organized to help stop an unpopular war, then why not use similar tactics to galvanize an environmental movement?
In fact, people everywhere were waking up to the importance of protecting their planet. The months before the first Earth Day saw a profusion of grassroots efforts aimed either at specific causes or raising environmental awareness in general.
Under the guidance of Earth Day national coordinator Denis Hayes, thousands of volunteers — mostly college-age or younger — organized rallies and events from the “redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters.” When Earth Day arrived, 20 million Americans took part.
During an address at the University of Wisconsin, Nelson summed up the purpose of Earth Day this way: “Our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human creatures and for all living creatures…. The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment, between man and other living creatures will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical and financial commitment, far beyond any effort made before.”
The senator practiced what he preached. Virtually every significant piece of environmental legislation of the period has Nelson’s fingerprints all over it: from the preservation of the Appalachian Trail to the Clean Air Act to the Clean Water Act.
Following his defeat for re-election in the same 1980 election that swept Ronald Reagan and the neoconservatives into power nationwide, Nelson moved on to the Wilderness Society, where he served as a counselor. He died in 2005.
Over the years, Nelson’s message never wavered: Safeguarding the environment is the single most pressing problem facing humanity.
A lot of people believe him today. Plenty of others, alas, still don’t