50th Anniversary Of Earth Day

Apr 20, 2020

Did you know that Earth Day has its roots in Wisconsin? The Masked Biologist takes a glimpse back at the origins and early years after the original Earth Day in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

We are observing an incredibly special anniversary this week—the establishment of Earth Day right here in Wisconsin. I thought I would share some insight from earth day founder and Senator from Wisconsin Gaylord Nelson, as he reflected on the establishment of Earth Day ten years later.

“When April 22, 1970, dawned, literally millions of Americans of all ages and from all walks of life participated in Earth Day celebrations from coast to coast. It was on that day that Americans made it clear that they understood and were deeply concerned over the deterioration of our environment and the mindless dissipation of our resources. That day left a permanent impact on the politics of America. It forcibly thrust the issue of environmental quality and resources conservation into the political dialogue of the Nation. That was the important objective and achievement of Earth Day. It showed the political and opinion leadership of the country that the people cared, that they were ready for political action, that the politicians had better get ready, too. In short, Earth Day launched the Environmental decade with a bang.”

That quote and those that follow were from a retrospective statement that Nelson made ten years after the original Earth Day. He went on to say “My primary objective in planning Earth Day was to show the political leadership of the Nation that there was broad and deep support for the environmental movement. While I was confident that a nationwide peaceful demonstration of concern would be impressive, I was not quite prepared for the overwhelming response that occurred on that day. Two thousand colleges and universities, ten thousand high schools and grade schools, and several thousand communities in all, more than twenty million Americans participated in one of the most exciting and significant grassroots efforts in the history of this country.”

In the first decade after Earth Day, may environmental laws were enacted, including the Clean Air Act, the Water Pollution and Control Act Amendments, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, the Endangered Species Act, and what Nelson himself called “the most important piece of environmental legislation in our history, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law on January 1, 1970. NEPA came about in response to the same public pressure which later produced Earth Day.”

As Senator from Wisconsin, Nelson had significant concern for the health of the Great Lakes. He wrote “The lesson of the Great Lakes in the 1970s is this in less than 200 years, in less time than America has been a Nation, a brief moment in terms of man's life on this planet, significant adverse changes in the Lakes' water quality have occurred. The responsibility for these changes rests solely with man. In the 1970s, a sufficiently large and dispersed group of people recognized the fragility and finite nature of the Earth's ecosystem, understood that ‘everything is connected to everything else,’ and accepted the responsibility not only to set straight the mistakes of the past but to avoid repeating them in the future.

“So long as the human species inhabits the Earth, proper management of its resources will be the most fundamental issue we face. Our very survival will depend upon whether or not we are able to preserve, protect and defend our environment. We are not free to decide about whether or not our environment ‘matters.’ It does matter, apart from any political exigencies. We disregard the needs of our ecosystem at our mortal peril. That was the great lesson of Earth Day. It must never be forgotten.”

My question to all of us, fifty years after the first Earth Day: have we forgotten that lesson? Is Earth Day a day of celebration, or is it a day of protest? Maybe it should be a little of both. The need for change is greater now than at any point in history.