Organizing for Change: The Genius of the First Earth Day

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Burning discarded automobile batteries, July 1972. Source: U.S. National Archives Flickr stream.

The story of the first Earth Day always has struck me as inspiring, but now it seems even more vital. For the first time since the rise of the environmental movement, all of the levers of power in Washington are controlled by officials skeptical of government regulation. Protecting the environment will require extraordinary effort, and Earth Day 1970 gives hope that we can rise to the occasion. It is both an example of a rare kind of political leadership and a reminder of the power of engaged citizens.

The basic facts still amaze me. In September 1969, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson vowed to organize a nationwide environmental teach-in in spring 1970. The resulting event—the first Earth Day—was far bigger than the biggest civil-rights march or antiwar demonstration or woman’s liberation protest in the 1960s. Roughly 1,500 colleges and 10,000 schools held environmental teach-ins. Earth Day activities also took place in churches and temples, in city parks, and in front of corporate and government buildings. Though the largest crowds gathered on April 22, many institutions and communities celebrated for a week, not just a day. In Birmingham, Alabama, Earth Day was part of Right to Live Week. Cleveland, Ohio organized Crisis in the Environment Week. Across the United States, millions of people took part.

The sheer scale of Earth Day became the big news. Though Americans had begun to address many environmental problems before 1970, no one used the phrase “environmental movement” before the planning for Earth Day began. Earth Day gave Americans a sense that the environment had become a powerful cause. Politicians took notice, and so did the media.

Yet the essential Earth Day story is about civic engagement. Senator Nelson found a way to join the institutional authority of Washington with the energy of the grassroots. That fusion allowed Earth Day to build a new eco-infrastructure—government agencies, environmental-studies programs, environmental beats at newspapers, and non-profit organizations.

Nelson had tried for years to raise concern in Congress about environmental issues. His “aha” moment finally came when he read an article about the history of Vietnam War teach-ins. The antiwar teach-ins had been catalysts for change. They had pushed students and faculty to think more clearly, and then to act. An environmental teach-in, Nelson thought, would be even more likely to lead to action.

But Nelson was a 53-year-old pillar of the Establishment, not a young activist. Could a senator spark a nationwide demonstration? Nelson sought the advice of a veteran Democratic Party operative, Fred Dutton, who outlined a Washington-directed operation. He suggested that Nelson pick potential organizers—students, faculty members, and community residents—at 40 institutions. Nelson rejected that recommendation. He concluded that the teach-in could not be an extension of his will. Though he had conceived the idea, he did not try to control the event. Instead, Nelson allowed many others to take ownership of the teach-in.

Nelson did not even insist on his original name for the event. He hired a small group of young activists to help coordinate the teach-in, and they thought “teach-in” sounded too academic. The teach-in staff asked advertising guru Julian Koenig to propose alternatives, and “Earth Day” was one of Koenig’s suggestions. The staff used the new name for the first time in a full-page advertisement in the New York Times on January 18, 1970.

Nelson’s decision not to try to control the event allowed Earth Day to engage the energies of tens of thousands of local organizers. In a few cases, a well-established club or organization led the charge, but most Earth Day events were organized by groups formed solely for the occasion. In K-12 schools, the groups often had classic 1960s names: SLOP (Student League Opposing Pollution), YUK (Youth Uncovering Crud), and SCARE (Students Concerned about a Ravaged Environment). Adults typically just formed an Earth Day Committee.

The local organizers often worked for months—and for many, the organizational effort was life-changing. Though some of the Earth Day organizers already were environmental activists, many were new to the cause. Students led the way at most schools, colleges, and universities. Housewives helped organize many community events. The organizing effort in many communities also relied on young professionals—doctors, landscape architects, lawyers, urban planners—but many other kinds of people were involved, from religious leaders to union members.

After Earth Day, many organizing groups continued to work for change. Some campaigned for environmental legislation. Especially in university towns, the Earth Day organizing effort sometimes led to the establishment of ecology centers, often funded by recycling programs—at the time, recycling was not a responsibility of government. Some of the college and high-school groups pressed for changes in the curriculum.

But even where the Earth Day groups disbanded, the event often left a lasting legacy. Earth Day was superb leadership training. In weeks or months of planning, the local organizers were tested repeatedly. What counted as an environmental issue? Was the goal to advance an agenda or to involve as many people as possible? Would the emphasis be on education, activism, or media spectacle? What relationship would the Earth Day effort have to other social movements, if any? Should the program feature local speakers or outsiders? Were any sources of funding off limits? Almost every question was potentially divisive. Yet the experience gave thousands of people a chance to develop the skills, contacts, and sense of mission that provided a foundation for future activism.

That was much more than Nelson expected. He simply wanted to persuade the nation’s leaders that Americans cared passionately about the environment. But Earth Day proved to be much more than a show of concern and a demand for action.

Earth Day empowered people. When I was researching The Genius of Earth Day, I talked with dozens of local organizers, and I was impressed by how many still were involved in the environmental cause. They defended rivers, promoted green building, administered environmental-protection agencies, hosted eco programs on radio and television, and much more. Earth Day helped to make the first green generation.

Despite all that the first Earth Day accomplished, however, the environmental challenges we face today are greater than in 1970. The issue of climate change will take all the skill and vision we can muster. That means we need more politicians who engage citizens in the political process. We need more environmental organizations working imaginatively to encourage grassroots activism. Above all, we need more people—perhaps inspired by the organizers of the first Earth Day—who resolve to make a difference.

Adam Rome teaches environmental history at the University at Buffalo. A leading expert on the history of environmental activism, he is the author of the prizewinning The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (2001) and The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation (2013). He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

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