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Earth Day @40 – Reflecting Back and Remembering Gaylord Nelson

2010 April 22

Earth_Day_handshake_web_6inI joined the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson’s (founder of Earth Day) staff just out of college, shortly after the celebration of the second Earth Day in 1971. He instilled in me a passion for the environment that lives within me to this day.

The project began when Nelson called two of his senior aides into his office in September, 1969. He had just returned from Santa Barbara right after the horrific oil spill off the California coast. He was outraged by the environmental devastation and political inertia in Washington. He had read in the local newspaper about teach-ins on the Berkeley campus against the war in Vietnam and had an idea. He told his staffers, “See what you can do about having environmental teach-ins on college campuses around the country on the same day next spring.”

On April 22, 1970, about 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day (a record for any event of any kind at that time). Sen. Nelson was justifiably pleased. He had made protecting the environment his career and it seemed that the United States, then the world’s chief polluter, was ready to lead an ‘environmental’ revolution. Not quite.

The first project the Senator assigned me was to call the “Top 100” Fortune CEOs and encourage them to recycle. It took some time (no internet then) but I completed my task. Two things stand out about that experience. First, I got through to 98 of them (directly or they called me back). Second, all of them either hung up on me or laughed and then hung up (Today, not one of those companies, still in existence, would tell me that they don’t recycle in some capacity).

One of those senior aides, John Heritage, wrote in the Madison (WI) Capital Times recently, “Unfortunately, the ecological health of our nation and much of the world has deteriorated in the last four decades. We now face…a warming world climate, degradation of the oceans, decimation of tropical forests, and the loss of habitats and species.”

To honor Gaylord Nelson and his profound understanding of ecological limitations, it is imperative that we work together to find ways to implement a more environmentally favorable system of human living.

About the author: John Larmett has worked in the Office of Public Affairs since 2008. He worked for Sen. Nelson from 1971-80.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. armansyahardanis permalink
    April 22, 2010

    The Earth Day @40 was signed Iceland’s volcanoes. The people probably didn’t think this relationship. However, the meteors came here a few days ago. We need many Gaylord Nelsons to answer the universe phenomenons. Challenges for “Scientists Plus”….

  2. Suzanne permalink
    April 22, 2010

    Great post John!

  3. Lina-EPA permalink
    April 22, 2010

    This is great, John
    Must have been a wonderful experience.

  4. David Mc permalink
    April 22, 2010

    Nelson couldn’t of done it without that cry baby American Indian. Just a joke. Happy Earth Day!

  5. Kiro permalink
    April 23, 2010

    Great post John! Must have been a wonderful experience.

  6. Lara permalink
    April 23, 2010

    I was born in 1973 and grew up in a family where “being environmentally friendly” was a way of life, unquestioned. Many of our practices also saved our family money, so it was doubly important we not slack off on them. Back then it was quirky. Something cute like my mom playing guitar for girl scout singalongs. In college, environmental science became an intellectual challenge for me to understand how our home planet functions. Nowadays, it seems like a rescue mission – bailing water out of our sinking ship.

    One of my favorite people is a retired fisheries professor of an age to be a contemporary of Gaylord Nelson. He and one of his former students participated in this National Guard environmental video project: http://www.ngdocs.com An excellent example of collaboration across generations. Enjoy!

  7. Lina-EPA permalink*
    April 23, 2010

    Lara,
    Love your life story. Glad you see your commitment to environmentally friendly values.

  8. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    April 25, 2010

    I can remember the Santa Barbara oil blowout and the river that runs through Cleavland catching fire from all the hazardous chemicals and pollutants that were being dumped into it. Big corporations still want to roll back the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. And we saw last week a fresh example of why we need to keep our antipollution laws in tact. The blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that has cost 11 workers their lives, seriously injured others, and led to a major oil pollution problem. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  9. C V Cooney permalink
    April 26, 2010

    Extreme praise for those far sighted individuals like Gaylord Nelson. He began a whole movement to save the earth at a time when this was difficult to do because we were into exploitation. He made us much more aware.

  10. marcus permalink
    August 16, 2011

    this is indeed a great post john

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