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Earth Day 1970 –Defining Moments

By Tom Cochran
April 27, 2009


The history of Earth day came from the idea of one man, former Senator Gaylord Nelson. He came from Wisconsin- first a governor who cared about the environment, and later a great Senator. I worked with him on a number of issues. It troubled him that the condition of our environment was simply a non-issue in national politics. History shows that in November of 1962 then Governor Nelson came up with the idea of persuading President Kennedy to do a national conservation tour to put the environment up front and center. He flew to Washington and talked with President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. They liked the idea and President Kennedy started his five-day eleven state conservation tour in September 1963. Nelson later said there were many reasons the tour was not a success. But this was the germ of the idea that ultimately grew into Earth Day.

While Nelson would continue to speak out to national audiences about the environment, it would be six years later on a conservation tour in Berkley in 1969 that he would pick up Ramparts Magazine and see reports of anti-Vietnam War “teach-ins” and demonstrations. It was then that the idea occurred to him – why not organize a huge grassroots protest over what was happening to our environment?

He was convinced that if we could reach in and touch the concerns of the general public and transfer the student energy in the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue into the national political agenda.

It was at a conference in downtown Seattle in September of 1969, that he announced that in the spring of 1970 there would be a national grassroots demonstration. The wire services and the media went wild. Telegrams, telephone calls and letters flooded his offices. Americans responded fiercely because they had a place to express their concerns about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air. The exuberance continued and for the next four months two members of Nelson’s Senate staff managed Earth Day activities and plans out of his Senate office.

Five weeks before Earth Day on November 30, 1969, the famous Gladwin Hill lengthy article appeared in the New York Times reporting on the rapidity of this new movement: “Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent with Vietnam… a national day of observance of environmental problems … is being planned for next Spring … when an environmental “teach in” … coordinated by Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned.

Three months before Earth Day in January, John Gardner, Founder of Common Cause, provided the temporary space for a D.C. headquarters. College students staffed the office.

Senator Nelson selected Denis Hayes to coordinate Earth Day activities. Hayes was from Wisconsin but he grew up in the small town of Camas Washington. He was the student body President at Stanford and he was an activist against the Viet Nam War. He enrolled into Harvard Law, but he left when Senator Nelson picked the 25 year old to coordinate the first Earth Day. Hayes became the spokesperson for the Earth Day/Environmental Teach-in. On April 22, 1970, participants in two thousand colleges and ten thousand primary and secondary schools and hundreds of cities, and twenty million demonstrators came out that day.

Our leader was New York City Mayor John Lindsay. He went “all out” in New York City. We had cities through out the nation on board. For two hours on April 22, 1970, downtown Manhattan was at a virtual standstill. “Teach-ins” were everywhere. Thousands flooded New York City. Mayors walked arm-in-arm down Fifth Avenue with no traffic. It was a day I won’t forget because back then it seemed strange there was no traffic, no taxis – just thousands walking to save our environment. Back then we weren’t using the words “climate protection” or “global warming.” Mayor Lindsay said on the first Earth Day, “Beyond words like ecology, environment, and pollution, there is a simple question: Do we want to live or die?”

A poll showed after Earth Day 1970 there was a 2,500% increase over 1969 of Americans who favored protecting the environment. We were trying to use the anti war energy to get a movement going that would keep going for decades. There has been some progress. The EPA was created. Even with all the Presidents saying we should be off our addiction to foreign oil, we are still addicted. President Carter was without a doubt the strongest environmentalist since Teddy Roosevelt. He tried, but Reagan came in, took the solar panels off the White House and turned the night lights back on the Washington monuments, and Carter’s proposals were shelved. Many of them are still on the shelf and should be considered now.

Today, The United States Conference of Mayors is a leader for climate protection. The movement that was started by a groundbreaking speech in downtown Seattle by a visionary Senator is being carried forth now by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. Thanks to Mayor Nickels, our Climate Protection Center now lists 944 mayors as signatories of The U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

Our organization, The U.S. Conference of Mayors, conceived, worked to pass the Energy Block Grant Program that was adopted into law and became a significant part of President’s Obama economic stimulus initiative. Already announced and soon to be sent will by $2.8 billion in Energy Block Grants. Mayors and cities will use these monies to continue to make the dream of protecting our environment espoused 39 years ago a reality. Conference Presidents Palmer of Trenton and Diaz of Miami made the green issue, climate protection, a top priority. Incoming President, Mayor Nickels, the founder of the Mayors Climate Protection Center, will take us to the mountaintop as we implement the energy block grants and continue to be the leader to change human behavior to make a difference. Mayor Nickels will lead us here as our next President of The U.S. Conference of Mayors and he will lead us to Copenhagen where we will be advocating that our President Obama will this time, finally, sign the treaty and together we will support our new President to get it ratified in the U.S. Senate. Again, Happy Earth Day 2009. We have come a long way since 1970 and we will continue to lead, to make a difference, and play our most significant and critical role in saving our planet.