Earth Day’s real, lasting legacy

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

Happy Earth Day.

Maybe we should start with a disclosure that I am Gaylord Nelson’s biographer, which may give me a somewhat different perspective on Earth Day, founded by Senator Nelson (pictured), than some others.

That said, do take time to read Meteor Blade’s commentary and Q-A with Denis Hayes, who has been associated with Earth Day since Gaylord Nelson hired him to coordinate the first one in 1970.

Earth Day, it is true, has not solved all of the world’s environmental problems.  But it has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on how people think about and relate to the environment.

Gaylord Nelson’s primary goal in launching Earth Day was to get environmental issues a prominent place on this country’s political agenda, and it certainly accomplished that long ago.  On the first Earth Day, seven months after Nelson announced plans for what he envisioned as a campus environmental teach-in, 20 million people — 10 per cent of the US population at the time — participated in some way.

Earth Day introduced the Environmental Decade, an unparalleled period of legislative and grassroots activity to protect the nation’s environment. More significant environmental legislation was signed into law during the eleven-year “decade” (1970-1980) than during the 170-year period prior to Earth Day.  Congress passed twenty-eight major environmental laws, and hundreds of other public lands bills to protect and conserve natural resources.

Philip Shabecoff, a noted environmental writer, described it this way:

After Earth Day, nothing was the same. Earth Day brought revolutionary change and touched off a great burst of activism that profoundly affected the nation’s laws, its economy, its corporations, its farms, its politics, science, education, religion, and journalism… Most important, the social forces unleashed after Earth Day changed, probably forever, the way Americans think about the environment.


There’s a suggestion in the Meteor Blades piece that Earth Day was a diversion from other issues like racism, poverty and the Vietnam war, echoing some complaints from the left at the time.

From my biography of Nelson:

“The nation’s concern with the environment has done what George Wallace was unable to do: Distract the nation from the human problems of the black and brown Americans, living in just as much misery as ever,” Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana said.

Journalist I.F. Stone, speaking at the rally at the Washington Monument, called Earth Day a “beautiful snow job” designed to distract attention from government military and spending policies.  “We here tonight are being conned,” Stone said.  “The country is slipping into a wider war in Southeast Asia and we’re sitting here talking about litter bugs.”

But Nelson, an early outspoken opponent of the war who was one of only three Senators to vote against appropriations for the war in 1965, wasn’t just talking about litter bugs.

In his speech at the University of Wisconsin in Madison on the eve of Earth Day, Nelson made it clear he saw the movement as broadly focused.

“Our goal is not to forget about the worst environments in America – in the ghettos, in Appalachia and elsewhere,” he said.  “Our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings and all other living creatures – an environment without ugliness, without ghettos, without poverty, without discrimination, without hunger and without war.  Our goal is a decent environment in its deepest and broadest sense.

The Meteor Blades post suggests that enthusiasm and participation lagged over the next 20 years, and were only revived for the 20th anniversary of the event.

But that misses the real genius of Earth Day, and its most singular accomplishment.

Earth Day became institutionalized, and took root in the schools, where it blossoms every spring with little or no nurturance or cultivation from outside.  It happens at the local level, whether there is a national organization holding huge concerts, rallies, and demonstrations or not.

That is what truly has transformed the way people relate to the environment.

Because of environmental education, we now have a generation of young people who grew up with what Gaylord Nelson called an environmental ethic:

“We need a generation imbued with an environmental ethic,” Nelson said repeatedly over the years, “which causes society to always ask the question: ‘If we intrude on this work of nature, what will the consequences be?'” Such an ethic would recognize “the bonds that unite the species man with the natural systems of the planet” and would affirm humans’ stewardship role on the planet, he said

The message and goal had not changed in the half-century since Aldo Leopold wrote, in A Sand County Almanac, of the need for what he called a land ethic. “A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land,” Leopold wrote. The land ethic “changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to a plain member and citizen of it.’ That, in a few sentences, was what the environmental movement was all about. Nelson’s environmentalism was a direct descendant of Leopold’s conservation.

An example:

In his visits to grade schools in the 1990s, Nelson found that nearly every pupil knew about the issue of dolphin-safe tuna. He told of one young girl who proudly told him that when her mother had come home with a can of tuna that did not have a “dolphin-safe” symbol, she made her mother drive back to the grocery store and exchange it. “This is the evolution of an ethic,” he said. It is due in large part to Earth Day, Earth Week, and the ongoing environmental education the movement spawned in the nation’s classrooms. “That’s the heart of the matter,” he said.

And that is Nelson’s real legacy.



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  1. My view that Earth Day 1970 was a “diversion” has more to do with the attitudes of many of the people who attended the events then than the organizers – both Nelson and Hayes were anti-Vietnam War. But, strangely, nowhere could you find events on that original Earth Day relating to, say, the defoliation of the Vietnamese countryside with chemicals that are still causing problems decades later, even though “Operation Ranch Hand” ran from 1961-1971. A huge oversight at a time when most of the local organizers of Earth Day events were focused so entirely on a green America, in isolation.

    Second, I would argue that those children mostly became imbued with environmental consciousness AFTER Earth Day 1990. This isn’t to say that nobody thought about – or promoted – such consciousness for 20 years. But if you look at typical BEHAVIOR during, say, the 1980s, there was a move AWAY from environmental consciousness. Earth Day became a bit like Thanksgiving, paper hats and feathers with little connection to the real politics and events of 1620 and afterward.

    And, today, there remains an amazing disconnect among gobs of people in their late 30s and 40s (raised in the post Earth Day 1970 period) between what they SAY about the environment and their personal behavior in that regard. Until gasoline hit $4 a gallon, to offer just one example, the number of people in my VERY Democratic progressive neighborhood who own SUVs is about equal to those who don’t.

    That being said, I admire and respect what Nelson did 38 years ago, and, of course, what Hayes has done. Hence, my interview with him.


    • lezlie on April 23, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    I wish more people had read it and participated in the discussion…

    Hope you had a happy, productive Earth Day!

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