The Green Blog
The History of Earth Day: How the First Earth Day Came About

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Earth Day has been around now officially since 1970, but many people don't know its origin or the inspiration behind its founding. Below is an interesting piece from Founder Senator Gaylord Nelson on his inspirational idea that is an influential movement and a way of life for many eco-conscious people today.   And here is another interesting note: Senator Gaylord Nelson is a fellow Greek --  a member of Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity.
By Senator Gaylord Nelson, Founder of Earth Day

What was the purpose of Earth Day? How did it start? These are the questions I am most frequently asked.

Actually, the idea for Earth Day evolved over a period of seven years starting in 1962. For several years, it had been troubling me that the state of our environment was simply a non-issue in the politics of the country. Finally, in November 1962, an idea occurred to me that was, I thought, a virtual cinch to put the environment into the political "limelight" once and for all. The idea was to persuade President Kennedy to give visibility to this issue by going on a national conservation tour. I flew to Washington to discuss the proposal with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who liked the idea. So did the President. The President began his five-day, eleven-state conservation tour in September 1963. For many reasons the tour did not succeed in putting the issue onto the national political agenda. However, it was the germ of the idea that ultimately flowered into Earth Day.

I continued to speak on environmental issues to a variety of audiences in some twenty-five states. All across the country, evidence of environmental degradation was appearing everywhere, and everyone noticed except the political establishment. The environmental issue simply was not to be found on the nation's political agenda. The people were concerned, but the politicians were not.

After President Kennedy's tour, I still hoped for some idea that would thrust the environment into the political mainstream. Six years would pass before the idea that became Earth Day occurred to me while on a conservation speaking tour out West in the summer of 1969. At the time, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, called "teach-ins," had spread to college campuses all across the nation. Suddenly, the idea occurred to me - why not organize a huge grassroots protest over what was happening to our environment?

I was satisfied that 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 this issue onto the political agenda. It was a big gamble, but worth a try.

At a conference in Seattle in September 1969, I announced that in the spring of 1970 there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment and invited everyone to participate. The wire services carried the story from coast to coast. The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air - and they did so with spectacular exuberance. For the next four months, two members of my Senate staff, Linda Billings and John Heritage, managed Earth Day affairs out of my Senate office.

Five months before Earth Day, on Sunday, November 30, 1969, The New York Times carried a lengthy article by Gladwin Hill reporting on the astonishing proliferation of environmental events:

"Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation's campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam...a national day of observance of environmental being planned for next spring...when a nationwide environmental 'teach-in' ... coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned ..."

It was obvious that we were headed for a spectacular success on Earth Day. It was also obvious that grassroots activities had ballooned beyond the capacity of my U.S. Senate office staff to keep up with the telephone calls, paper work, inquiries, etc. In mid-January, three months before Earth Day, John Gardner, Founder of Common Cause, provided temporary space for a Washington, D.C. headquarters. I staffed the office with college students and selected Denis Hayes as coordinator of activities.

Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.


About Senator Gaylord Nelson
He was a Senator from Wisconsin; born in Clear Lake, Polk County, Wis., June 4, 1916; attended the public schools of Clear Lake; graduated from the San Jose (Calif.) State College in 1939 and from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1942; admitted to the Wisconsin bar the same year; during the Second World War served as a lieutenant in the United States Army for four years, serving overseas in the Okinawa campaign; engaged in the practice of law in Madison, Wis., in 1946; elected to the State senate in 1948, 1952, and 1956, and served as Democratic floor leader for four years; Governor of Wisconsin 1959-1962; elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate in November 1962 for the term commencing January 3, 1963; subsequently served out his term as Governor until January 7, 1963, and commenced his term in the Senate on January 8, 1963; reelected in 1968 and 1974 and served from January 8, 1963, to January 3, 1981; unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1980; chairman, Select Committee on Small Business (Ninety-third through Ninety-sixth Congresses), Special Committee on Official Conduct (Ninety-fifth Congress); founder of Earth Day 1970; counselor, The Wilderness Society, Washington, D.C.; awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on September 29, 1995; was a resident of Kensington, Md., until his death due to cardiovascular failure on July 3, 2005; remains cremated and buried in family plot in Clear Lake, Wisconsin.


Read other Pink Goes Green/Earth Day blogs and find out how you can celebrate Earth Day 2012:
Earth Day Every Day on the Job
Earth Day is April 22
Celebrate Earth Day Every Day!
The Natural Wonders of Earth Day