Earth Day @40 – Reflecting Back and Remembering Gaylord Nelson

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.