For those of us privileged to have been a part of the first Earth Day in April 1970, it is particularly troubling to see the state of our planet as Earth Day 2011 approaches. Radiation spewing from Japanese nuclear reactors. The BP Deep Water Horizon blowout from last year and the damage done to the Gulf of Mexico. Attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency. States introducing legislation to close state parks to camping and to use state parks for logging and oil drilling. And the list goes on.
Our thoughts turn to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, the great
Nelson's legacy stands in stark contrast to now-Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Nelson understood the power of state government to create jobs and protect the land for future generations. During Nelson's decade in the state senate and his two terms as governor, he remained an ardent and outspoken liberal. He believed in using government to address problems that the nation's growing affluence appeared unable to solve. Nelson envisioned "the creation of a social structure founded on quality instead of quantity and moral might instead of military might."
The first Earth Day drew more than 20 million participants. Stop and think about that fact. In an age with no internet, no cell phones and no social media, 20 million people participated in a day designed to say "stop destroying the earth." American Heritage Magazine called the first Earth Day "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy." Nelson's vision was basic and simple, yet challenged those of his time:
"The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity" that's all there is. That's the whole economy. That's where all the economic activity and jobs come from. These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world."
The idea for Earth Day was born in August 1969 after Nelson surveyed an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Against this backdrop, Nelson thought of the college "teach ins" being used to educate campuses about the war in Vietnam. What if, Nelson wondered, students used the same forum to raise environmental awareness, and what if they coordinated their events to fall on the same day, grabbing headlines and sending a strong environmental message to Washington? He proposed the idea in front of a small, conservation group in Seattle on September 20.
Nelson and his staff worked tirelessly to promote the day and coordinate selected events, but Nelson often said that Earth Day "organized itself." Speaking on the first Earth Day to a group in Denver, Nelson said, "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 being and all living creatures."
In the U.S. Senate, he sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of pieces of legislation, including the Wilderness Act and the Alaska Lands Act. In Wisconsin, his U.S. Senate legacy includes the St. Croix Wild and Scenic Riverway and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Nelson was also a trailblazer in consumer protection, and was one of only three Senators to vote against the $700 million appropriation that signaled the start of the ground war in Vietnam.
We have traveled far off the path that Gaylord Nelson envisioned. The need for a vision to redirect our energies and our priorities are as real today as they were a generation ago. The recent grass roots demonstrations in Nelson's native Wisconsin to protest the corporate-sponsored activities of today provide hope and inspiration that we can learn from this great progressive leader and what he did for the environment.
There was a time when the conversation and tone of this nation and its views toward the environment were different than they are today. We have the power to turn the conversation back to protecting and caring for the Earth. Nelson was not afraid to stand up to the corporate power of his time, and we must not be afraid to do the same. It's important to remember Gaylord Nelson, but it is even more important to turn his legacy into action. His life serves as a reminder that everything is interrelated, interconnected and interdependent. No where does that play out more vividly than within the context of environmental issues. We once honored the word environmentalist. We can do it again.