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Gaylord Nelson Promotes the First Earth Day

April 22, 1970

United States senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) helped launch the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Years after his death, Senator Nelson remains an icon of the environmental movement.

Senator Nelson used to say that he came to environmentalism “by osmosis,” having grown up in Clear Lake, Wisconsin. He promoted conservation as governor of Wisconsin, and after he was elected to the Senate in 1962 he used his maiden speech to call for “a comprehensive, nationwide program to save the natural resources of America.” He went on to compile an impressive list of legislative accomplishments, which included preserving the Appalachian Trail, banning DDT, and promoting clear air and clean water. But it was Earth Day that gave him international prominence and serves as his lasting legacy.

Senator Nelson worried that the United States lacked a “unity of purpose” to respond to the increasing threats against the environment. The problem, in his words, was how to “get the nation to wake up and pay attention to the most important challenge the human species faces on the planet.” Then a number of incidents converged to help him frame a solution. In 1969 a major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara covered miles of beaches with tar. Senator Nelson toured the area in August and was outraged by the damage the oil spill had caused, but he was also impressed with the many people who rallied to clean up the mess. Flying back from California, the senator read a magazine article about the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins that were taking place on college campuses. This inspired him to apply the same model to the environment.

In September 1969 the senator charged his staff with figuring out how to sponsor environmental teach-ins on college campuses nationwide, to be held on the same day the following spring. Rather than organize this effort from the top down, they believed that Earth Day would work better as a grassroots movement. They raised funds to set up an office staffed by college students, with a law student, Denis Hayes, serving as the national coordinator. They identified the week of April 19 to 25 as the ideal time for college schedules and the possibility of good spring weather. Calculating that more students were on campus on Wednesdays made Wednesday, April 22, the first Earth Day. Critics of the movement pointed out that April 22 happened to be Vladimir Lenin’s birthday, but Senator Nelson rebutted that it was also the birthday of the “first environmentalist,” Saint Francis of Assisi.

An astonishing success, the first Earth Day in 1970 was celebrated by some 20 million Americans on 2,000 college campuses, at 10,000 primary and secondary schools, and in hundreds of communities. More than 40 years later, its commemoration attracts hundreds of millions of people in countries all over the world.