I am sure he read the newspapers and listened to the news that Sunday in June 1969. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland had caught fire due to an oil slick on the river caused by decades of industrial waste discharged into it by nearby manufacturing plants. Would this be the event that would ignite an environmental course of action by his colleagues in Congress? The alarming story told by Rachel Carson in 1962 of egg-shell thinning caused by the application of synthetic pesticides like DDT had not done so. Nor had the increasing number of reports of fish kills occurring throughout the United States. He thought that the southern California oil spill which occurred earlier that year in January most certainly would have stimulated legislative attention. It did not. And now a river had caught fire.
Introduced Draft Legislation
Back in 1963, he had introduced draft legislation on the Senate floor to ban DDT. Not one single member of Congress would support him. His only breakthrough in raising environmental awareness came when President John F. Kennedy responded to his request to join him and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall on what they called a Conservation Tour. During this five-day trip, the President visited eleven states from Pennsylvania to California and delivered fifteen speeches. While most of his addresses focused on the environment and were intended to raise the country’s awareness of existing problems, his political agenda concerning the country’s national and international affairs always took precedence.
Anyone else might have given up the fight, especially if he or she was a Senator of the United States. After all, there were future elections to think about and other issues to care about such as the growing unrest and distrust surrounding the possible deployment of U.S. troops to join the conflict in Vietnam in 1965. But this Senator was no ordinary Senator. He cared deeply for the environment especially in his home state of Wisconsin. No, for Senator Gaylord Nelson, there had to be another way to focus the nation’s interest on an environment that was under constant assault with no policies in sight to protect it.
“Conservation Governor” for the State.
Senator Gaylord Nelson was born in the north woods of Wisconsin and grew to love the beauty of the land. He earned his law degree at the University of Wisconsin and, after fighting in World War II, he returned to Madison to run for office as Governor. A democrat, he became known as the “Conservation Governor” for the State.
In 1962, he carried that ideal to Washington after he was elected to the United States Senate. But now, seven years later, with a Republican President in the White House, an unpopular war still festering in Southeast Asia and the country still reeling from the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy during the 1968 presidential campaign a year earlier how would he convince the Congress and the American public that environmental action was not only needed but had become, in his opinion, a national imperative? Would a nation which was seeking a return to natural balance by focusing on such optimistic events as the upcoming moon landing by Apollo 11, the counterculture musical festival being planned for a farm in Bethel, New York, near Woodstock and the woeful New York Mets who were showing signs of being a miracle thing, have enough emotional budget left to focus on the environment?
Tapping on sea of enthusiasm
He watched with growing interest the efforts of free-thinking and well-informed college student leaders, who were organizing events protesting the war in Vietnam while galvanizing America’s young people around interests and ideals that were vitally important to them, their futures and their dreams. How could he tap into that sea of enthusiasm and generate such passion for the environment among his Congressional colleagues?
In 1969, I was one of those college students. I am of the baby boomer generation, raised by parents of what is known as the “greatest generation”, a generation who suffered through the Great Depression and felt the pain of Pearl Harbor and still found the will to come together to fight and defeat the Axis Powers during World War II. From our parents, we learned to be true to our convictions and to speak out when we knew it would lead to change for the common good. And, perhaps most importantly, we learned that to effect change, our actions needed to speak louder than our words.
Focusing on the environment
Perhaps, it was these attributes that attracted the attention of Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1969. Perhaps, he realized that if he could not draw attention to environmental concerns using a top-down approach, then perhaps a grass-roots approach was in order. Perhaps, it was these thoughts that prompted him to pick up the phone and reach out to one Denis Hayes, a Stanford graduate, a student at Harvard and fellow Wisconsinite, to ask him for help in drawing together the nation’s young people and focusing their attention on the environment. Perhaps, he saw in Hayes a strong leader and one who had shown an innate ability to galvanize students around important issues related to the war. Perhaps he could use those talents to rally young people to support actions to protect their environment.
From this relationship grew the idea of a special day dedicated to the planet Earth, driven by America’s young people and focused more on actions than words. The easy part was deciding when to hold such an event. Since it would be driven in large part by college and university students it was decided that it should be held in late April after spring break and before final exams. A quick look at the meteorological charts of the day showed that Wednesday April 22, 1970 would be ideal with the forecast of mild weather expected throughout the country. The other easy part was giving it a name. It would simply be called “Earth Day”.
As word spread that such an event was being planned, many scoffed at the idea. Many politicians saw such an event as one more opportunity for activists to disrupt the natural balance and add to the political discomfort raised by anti-war demonstrations. They also saw it as giving population-growth doomsayers a platform to rail against those supposedly responsible for an exploding population in the United States and all of its negative consequences. And, of course, such an event was frowned upon by industry. They did not look kindly upon any action that might lead to further regulation of their facilities.
The American public was also unsure of such an event. While many were no doubt aware of isolated environmental concerns, other than those directly affected by these events, most suffered from a severe lack of effective communication about the environment. And, for the historically astute, some opined that we should not be celebrating the earth on April 22, 1970 which was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Soviet Union Chairman Lenin.
The success of the event would lay squarely on the efforts of Senator Nelson, Denis Hayes, a newly baptized organizational core and the untapped spirit of America’s youth.
Reaching out to educational institutions
The Earth Day organizers reached out to two thousand colleges and universities, ten thousand primary and secondary schools and hundreds of communities nationwide. Would they hear the call? More importantly, would they answer that call?
When Earth Day finally arrived on April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million people nationwide gathered in public parks, college campuses and high school auditoriums to do their part to raise environmental awareness. And then, armed with brooms, rakes, shovels and unfathomable energy, they put those words into action. Newspapers the next day would carry photos of people sweeping public venues, planting trees, holding fundraisers, and picking up garbage. Earth Day was a success!
But would it sway the political, economic and social conversations of the day? Would it lead to widespread change? After all, some argued that it is one thing for families to come together on a single day and participate in activities that made them feel good about themselves. However, it was another thing entirely to expect that those actions would be sustained by those who held the national purse strings. Would a Democratic Congress and a Republican President take the necessary steps to introduce environmental legislation to right the wrongs on so many environmental fronts, knowing full well that such legislation might regulate their constituents back home, the very constituents who took great pride in reminding local politicians on a daily basis of their vital contributions to national and local economies?
It didn’t take long to find out.
Leading up to the first Earth Day
Leading up to that first Earth Day, the environmental legislative agenda had already begun to awaken. First, President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (January 1, 1970) which created the President’s Council on Environmental Quality and required Federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of proposed major Federal actions prior to making decisions. Then, Congress dusted off several older environmental statutes such as the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 and the arcane Rivers and Harbors Act of 1889. Efforts would follow to update these statutes leading to the passage of two formidable statutes — the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972.
But it was after this first Earth Day that real change began to happen when President Nixon established the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an independent federal agency responsible for protecting human health and the environment. EPA opened its doors in December 1970 and President Nixon appointed William Ruckelshaus as its first administrator. One of the first actions taken by Administrator Ruckelshaus and his leadership team was to issue a ban on DDT and an injunction against the company responsible for the cyanide pollution of the Cuyahoga River. During the next decade, Congress would set a record for the number of environmental statutes enacted and most of those fell under the purview of the EPA.
Bill Ruckelshaus served as the Administrator of EPA from 1970 to 1973. He would move on to the FBI and then serve as the United States Deputy Attorney General until he resigned during the now infamous Watergate “Saturday Night Massacre”. He would return to EPA in 1983 to right the ship after the agency had been buffeted severely by political winds and scandal. He always said that a good job for him had to meet four criteria: interest, excitement, challenge and fulfillment. In his long and storied career, he noted that only his time at EPA had he met all four of those criteria. He passed away on November 27, 2019 but his spirit lives on.
As for me? Well, when I graduated college in June of 1971, I left behind a potential career in medicine and joined the EPA. Forty-five years later I retired from the agency with the spirit still aflame. Like Bill Ruckelshaus, I and the many people I had the privilege of working with over the years at EPA never lost interest and excitement for the job, met every challenge and was left with a feeling of fulfillment. These are sound principles that carry far beyond the EPA and should be ideals that anyone involved in sustainability efforts should embrace.
The spirit of that original earth day has not weakened over all these many years. I was proud to help plan many of them during my career at EPA. Then, in 1990, Earth Day went international and, according to the Earth Day Network, which was founded by Denis Hayes, Earth Day is now celebrated in 193 countries every year.
For those of you doing the math, you will have realized that this year on April 22, 2020 we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. The theme is unsurprisingly “climate action”. While 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day in 1970, several billion people, globally, are expected to participate in Earth Day 2020.
As Senator Gaylord Nelson stood proudly before President Bill Clinton in September 1995 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his environmental achievements, one must wonder where his thoughts travelled. My guess is that he was thinking not of himself but of people like you and me and the thousands of others who chose to follow in his footsteps.
50th Anniversary of Earth Day
As I sat down to write this piece, my goal was to focus us on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Little did I know that we, as a global community, would at this time be focused not on how we are affecting climate change but how we must come together to fight an invisible scourge from the smallest sector, if you will, of our biosphere. A juxtaposition of the two issues is relevant here, because in both situations it is only through us, working together globally, will we be able to solve one of the most challenging issues we have ever faced. I am confident that like the movement which produced the original Earth Day, we will find meet every challenge that COVID-19 throws in our way. It gives us pause, does it not? When we do finally celebrate the anniversary of Earth Day, we will look forward to the next 50 years with a much more well-informed approach and a deeper appreciation for the fragility of this planet which we call home.
It is not too late to plan events for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Please visit: https://www.earthday.org/earth-day-2020/ to see what is planned for your community. Or better yet, gather together with friends and family and register your own event. Good luck!
I will reflect further on Earth Day 2020, its impacts and its stories, in my next piece.
Tom Murray is a pollution prevention and sustainability expert and Director of Utility Relationships for the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC). Tom retired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 after over 44 years in government service. At EPA, Tom served as a Senior Science Advisor, leading efforts to develop action plans for several persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals including Mercury.
All views expressed here are my own and do not represent the opinions of any entity whatsoever with whom I have been, am now or will be affiliated.