The first Earth Day, celebrated 40 years ago today, grew out of classic 1960s campus uprisings.
Flying back from a tour of a California oil spill, U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., read an article about the “teach-ins” that were being used to protest the Vietnam War. Instead of skipping class to dissent, students and faculty gathered to discuss the war and what they believed were its illegalities and immoralities.
Dubbed the “Conservation Governor” for his environmental efforts during his term as the governor of Wisconsin, Nelson believed that a teach-in would be an effective outlet to voice public anger about the government’s lack of interest in the environment.
“If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda,” he said at the time.
Nelson traveled the country building support for a national environmental teach-in. Americans from all walks of life expressed interest.
In November of 1969, Nelson announced that the “National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment” would take place on April 22, 1970. The date was selected because it rested between spring break and final exams for most college students. In January of 1970, the event was renamed “Earth Day.”
The first Earth Day is said to have attracted 20 million Americans from 10,000 elementary and high schools, 2,000 colleges and more than 1,000 communities.
Stanley L. Laskowski, an advisor and lecturer in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science, was working for the U.S. Geological Survey in Trenton, N.J. at the time. “I remember coming home on the train and you had all these big celebrations all over the country,” he says. “There were people in D.C., big crowds of tens of thousands of people who were demanding more action from the government.”
Robert Giegengack, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, was at Penn during the first Earth Day commemoration and served on a committee that helped organize many events around campus. In Philadelphia, U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, addressed a crowd of tens of thousands in Fairmount Park (see “For the Record,” page 7, for more).
The ’60s are famous for passionate political protests and Laskowski says that is exactly what the first Earth Day was—a protest.
“Some were friendly gatherings, but people wanted the message to be heard,” he says.
Giegengack says 1970 was an important year, ushering in a new era of federal responsibility to regulate air and water quality. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded that year, followed by the enactment of a host of environmental acts and regulations.
On campus, the Penn Environmental Group (PEG) was established in 1971 by students who were actively involved in the first Earth Day. Originally a recycling organization, the PEG now focuses on raising awareness about environmental issues and implementing projects that make Penn and the city more sustainable.
PEG Co-Director and College sophomore Zachary Bell says that Earth Day is when environmental groups can unite. “It’s really good to have a day ... for everyone in the environmental movement to come together and celebrate for whatever their individual reasons are, and to connect it to the history of the movement,” he says. “[The first Earth Day] was sort of a starting point for the modern environmental movement.”
Chuck Brutsche, coordinator of PennGreen, says Earth Day celebrates the idea of “living for the common good.”
Nate Byer, campaign director for Earth Day Network’s Earth Day 2010, says he does not consider Earth Day a holiday, but a day of action.
“It’s one moment every year that every group, whether it be national security, labor, community groups, or cities, has an opportunity to come together behind a moment that is well-known and show that the environment is important to them,” he says. “It’s a focal point that is really assessable and can, if messaged correctly and if formulated correctly, be a launching pad for actual tangible environmental action.”
During his speech in Denver on the first Earth Day, Sen. Nelson told the crowd, “Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.”
Originally published on April 22, 2010