Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, put environmental protection at the forefront of his long career in public service. For many of his 42 years in politics, including two terms as governor and 18 years as a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, Nelson struggled to put environmental protection on the national political agenda. From his office in Washington, D.C., where he has served as counselor to the Wilderness Society since leaving politics in 1980, Nelson reflected on the evolution of Earth Day and the movement it launched.
What was the initial reaction to your appeals for environmental protection laws?
The political system was paying no serious attention to the environment. Aside from Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt had said some things about the environment, but no president after him that I know of. The whole system was ignoring a challenge more important than any other issue that we were addressing. It has been my view for many years that preserving the integrity of the ecosystems that sustain all plant and animal life is our most important mission. We're like the spendthrift who got a trust for $10 million and was rich right up to the 12th month of the 10th year, and the next day he was bankrupt. In other words, he was consuming his capital and his interest, which is what we're doing with our natural resources.
My interest was figuring out a way to come up with an event big enough to focus national attention on the issue. In 1962, while I was governor, I got the idea that if I could persuade President Kennedy to go on a nationwide conservation tour, the whole nation would focus on it.
So I came down to Washington in the fall of 1962 and brought along some materials showing the publicity I had gotten on my one-cent cigarette tax to raise $50 million to acquire wildlife habitat. Bobby Kennedy was persuaded it was a good idea. He talked to the president, and the president decided it was a good idea. The president jotted me a note and asked for some ideas. So I wrote him a five-page letter suggesting ideas for his speech for this national tour.
The tour started in August 1963. The president invited . . . me to join him on the first leg of the trip. We went to the White House, helicoptered out to Andrews Air Force Base - there were about 85 reporters there - and we took off. And I said to myself, “This is it. Now this issue is going to get on the national agenda of priorities.”
Kennedy didn't really have people around him who understood the depth and breadth and the sweep of the issue. And most of them didn't think it was very important. . . . [Kennedy] said something out West on foreign policy that got front-page coverage all over the country. I don't know what he said on the environment, but it didn't get much notice. From my point of view, the trip was a failure. That is, it didn't get the environment on the national agenda of highest priorities.
How did you get the idea for Earth Day?
Over the years, I talked about the environment in practically every speech I gave. I talked to labor unions, chambers of commerce, farm organizations, judicial conferences. It became clear to me that the public was interested and concerned.
I was on a speaking tour out West in the spring or early summer of 1969. The day after I spoke at a national conference on water in Santa Barbara, I flew to Berkeley to speak at the University of California at a conservation event of some kind. On the plane flying up to Berkeley, I read an article on the anti-Vietnam War teach-ins . . . . I had spoken at a number of these teach-ins, which were being held all over the country. I said to myself, “That's it. Let's have a national educational teach-in on the environment.”
So I went back to Washington and set up a nonprofit organization. Every honorarium I received for speaking I put into Earth Day teach-in stuff . . . .
We did a lot of the preparatory work in my office. I drafted sample resolutions and letters to every mayor of every major city . . . and to all the governors asking them to issue proclamations. I prepared letters to all the college newspapers and scholastic magazines that went to all the high schools and grade schools. So I had everything all ready to go.
On Sept. 21, during a speech at a conservation event run by the governor of Washington state, I announced that there would be a national environmental event, a demonstration or teach-in, the next spring. I hadn't picked a date. It must have been a slow news day, because AP and UPI carried it on the wires, and we had a bunch of front-page stories in loads of papers. When I got back to Washington, the phone was ringing off the hook.
My primary purpose was to shake up the political establishment, get them to respond or start doing something. In the 1968 presidential election, neither Hubert Humphrey nor [Richard] Nixon had mentioned the environment.
Why did Earth Day have such widespread public appeal?
People were aware that bad things were happening all around them. The beach was being closed because it was polluted, the nice stream that ran near town that people once caught trout in was now polluted and there were no trout. Cities like Pittsburgh were covered with smog that you could see from 100 miles away. So there was a concern there that the political system did not perceive for some reason.
I had spoken on campuses in at least 35 states before and during the Vietnam War, and the student response was always very strong to environmental speeches. So I knew that there would be a good campus response. Furthermore, the students were experienced. They had fought on their campuses and gotten organized for the Civil Rights Act. And then along came Vietnam, and for several years they had been protesting that. Now I gave them another positive issue to protest about.
By the end of December, things had gotten too big for me to handle in my office. I was getting called off the Senate floor two and three times a day to go to the cloakroom and take long-distance calls from people asking what they should do about Earth Day. So in January I opened a national office in Washington. I sent my staff, two people, up there to get things organized, be sure that the young folks we hired didn't get into the kind of sharp fights students like to get into. I wanted a cooperative effort. I wanted it to be bipartisan.
Then I had to pick a date. I wanted a day in the spring that was not exam time or vacation time because I wanted all the college campuses to participate. It turned out that the week of April 22 was the best time. Well, wouldn't you know it, the John Birch Society sent out a news release saying this is Sen. Nelson's ill-disguised attempt to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lenin. You've got to give it to them. Who would think of that?
Does corporate support of Earth Day corrupt the environmental movement?
We want the corporations in. It doesn't help to have strong groups such as businesses in the opposition. In 1970, only one corporation contributed to Earth Day, Arm and Hammer. In 1990, I got calls from around the country from environmentalists complaining that corporations' bad environmental records were coopting Earth Day. What's wrong with that? Shouldn't we be at least as generous as a church minister and let the sinners repent?
Corporations are going green for two reasons. First, they have a whole lot of customers who want them to, so they are responding to the marketplace. Secondly, the people who would one day occupy corporate leadership positions were in college in 1970. Now they're 45 years old and in management positions, so they've grown up in a more environmentally aware culture for the past quarter-century. In 1970, the leaders of corporations didn't value the issue. Now they do.
A lot of corporate leaders and environmentalists spent a lifetime in confrontation, and they can't give it up; it's more fun to be suspicious of each other. But that's changing. We want to have everyone involved because the basic goal has to be, and is, to forge a sustainable society, and there still isn't a single one on Earth. We're still consuming our capital, and that's not sustainable. To get everyone on board, you've got to approach it in an educational, cooperative manner.
Do deregulation proposals now before Congress threaten to turn back the clock on environmental protection?
Some people are saying we should let the corporations alone, that they will do what's best for the country. These people criticize the laws, and they want the bureaucracy to be cut back. This will largely be done because the Republicans have the votes. They will weaken laws that shouldn't be weakened instead of improving the laws' administration. But the underlying force of the environmental movement is there and continues to grow. Eighty percent of Americans in the polls call themselves environmentalists. That isn't going to change. But you'll have ups and downs on stuff like this. Environmentalism isn't a flash in the pan. The attack on the environment is a flash in the pan.