Earth Day in 1970: How a 53-year-old U.S. senator led a ‘youthquake’

UB environmental historian Adam Rome reflects on the legacy of the first Earth Day 50 years ago — the subject of his book, ‘The Genius of Earth Day’

Release Date: April 6, 2020

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“Senator Gaylord Nelson inspired a generation of activists, and their efforts changed history. ”
Adam Rome, professor of environment and sustainability
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The first Earth Day in 1970 was a “youthquake.” It wasn’t one event. It was at least 12,000, and most were organized by teenagers and twenty-somethings, says Adam Rome, a University at Buffalo environmental historian.

Across the U.S., in both red and blue states, youthful activists planned protests and action-oriented discussions to call attention to the sorry state of the nation’s air and water.

The impetus to Earth Day didn’t come from a young activist. A 53-year-old U.S. Senator, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, had promised in fall 1969 to organize what he called “a nationwide environmental teach-in” in spring 1970. Nelson hoped that if people stopped to think about the destruction of the environment, they’d be moved to action. And they were, Rome says.

By some estimates, 20 million Americans took part in Earth Day events on April 22, 1970. That unprecedented demonstration of concern impressed the nation’s leaders. Later that year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created. Federal laws to control air and water pollution followed in 1970 and 1972.

Though Senator Nelson had gone to Washington in 1963 committed to making environmental protection a national priority, his efforts had repeatedly failed until he figured out a way to tap the energy and idealism of the young, Rome says.

Today, with youthful activists once again stepping into leadership roles as the world grapples with climate change, it’s interesting to look back on the vital contributions that young people made to the first Earth Day 50 years ago, Rome says.

“Senator Gaylord Nelson inspired a generation of activists, and their efforts changed history,” Rome says. “The first Earth Day was the moment when many Americans became committed to building a sustainable society.”

Rome, PhD, a professor of environment and sustainability in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, is author of “The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation.” The book, published in 2013, tells the story of the first Earth Day in 1970. Rome is also creator of an Audible Original audio course on the first Earth Day, with a planned release date of April 14.

When Nelson spoke on college campuses, he found that many students were worried about the fate of the environment. They had grown up in the shadow of the atomic bomb, under skies brown with smog and alongside rivers so polluted that one in Cleveland caught on fire repeatedly.

Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” published in 1962 and read widely by many members of the baby-boom generation, captured some of their fears, using words that still resonate for those fighting environmental battles today, Rome says.

“The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials,” Carson wrote. “This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible.”

To help promote his teach-in, Nelson hired a staff of young veterans of the great causes of the 1960s, including the civil rights and antiwar movements, and they renamed Nelson’s event “Earth Day.”

Nelson left the planning of local events up to local organizers. That allowed Earth Day to become a truly grassroots phenomenon. It also enabled tens of thousands of people to take ownership of the event, and that experience empowered many organizers who decided to devote their lives to the environmental cause, Rome says.

In all, about 1,500 colleges and universities and 10,000 schools held Earth Day events. Earth Day also was celebrated in hundreds of community venues. People of all ages joined in calling for environmental action.

In the aftermath of Earth Day, universities launched environmental studies programs, with huge demand. Newspapers established environment beats, and bookstores created environment sections for the hundreds of new eco-books. Ecology centers opened across the U.S., launching some of the nation’s earliest recycling programs. Countless new environmental groups formed to lobby both in Washington and in state capitols across the nation.

The Earth Day generation of activists opened up a host of new career paths, Rome says. They became environmental lawyers, architects and reporters. They created enduring eco-institutions, from environmental studies programs to green businesses. They also staffed new environmental agencies and nonprofit organizations.

“Thanks to Senator Nelson and the Earth Day generation, our air and water are much cleaner now,” Rome says. “The concept of sustainability now is driving innovation in many fields. We still face grave environmental challenges, but the story of the first Earth Day can inspire today’s activists, young and old. We all can make a difference, if we try.”

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