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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Senator Earth Day

Air Date: Week of

The late Senator Gaylord Nelson. (Photo: Fritz Albert)

April 22nd marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, a national event that was started by the late Senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson captured the fervor and national sense of social activism of the 1960s to push an environmental agenda in Congress and around the country. Bill Christofferson wrote a biography of Gaylord Nelson called The Man From Clear Lake. He talks with host Steve Curwood about Nelson’s life and legacy as an environmentalist before his time.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts—this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

YOUNG: And I’m Jeff Young. This week a special program commemorating Earth Day at 40: Past, present and future visions of the modern environmental movement. Coming up, a conversation with the first and current Administrators of the EPA. But first, the year 1970.

[MUSIC: The Beatles “Let It Be” from Let It Be (EMI Records 2009 Reissue)]

CURWOOD: Topping the billboard chart on April 22, 1970—The Beatles. Paul McCartney announces he’s leaving the group.

YOUNG: It was a chaotic, contradictory era. Other hits that year: “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family—and “War” by Edwin Starr.

CURWOOD: In 1970 the minimum wage was a dollar sixty. A first class stamp was six cents.

YOUNG: Americans first started pumping their own gas in 1970. Regular cost 36 cents a gallon.

CURWOD: And the average car got—well, there were no federal standards for miles per gallon back in 1970. American Motors came out with the Gremlin.

YOUNG: A popular bumper sticker read “War is not healthy for children and other living things”. And President Nixon reduced the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam to 280 thousand.

CURWOOD: On April 22nd 1970, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, one of only three senators to vote against the Vietnam War early on—and founder of Earth Day, delivers this speech:

Bill Christofferson, Gaylord Nelson’s biographer.

NELSON: The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment, between man and other living creatures will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical, and financial commitment far beyond any commitment ever made by any society in the history of man. Are we able? Yes…are we willing? That is the unanswered question.

CURWOOD: It’s been 40 years since Gaylord Nelson posed that challenge at the first Earth Day. Now, for some understanding of the man who helped launch the modern environmental movement, we turn to his biographer. Bill Christofferson, who wrote “The Man from Clear Lake”.

CHRISTOFFERSON: It’s a little town of – at the time – about 700 people up near the Minnesota border, and the way he described it his childhood was idyllic. He spent all of his time in the outdoors, hunting and fishing and catching animals. He was just thoroughly an outdoor kid who grew up with appreciation for the environment. And it wasn’t anything he consciously cultivated or made it a decision at some point—I’m going to be an environmentalist, he said he always was one.

CURWOOD: As I understand it, he grew up, well, with a lot of privilege in his little town, he’s probably one of the richest families, his dad was a doctor?

CHRISTOFFERSON: Well, to the extent that there was any wealth in Clear Lake, I guess, his father was a country doctor, his mother was a nurse. He grew during the Depression—it was the days when his doctor wasn’t someone who was particularly concerned about money as much as he was about his patients.

And he often got paid in kind with a chicken or firewood or some times nothing. But, yeah, they were more or less the first family of Clear Lake—they’re very politically active they were Progressives back in the days of “Fighting Bob” La Follette one of Wisconsin’s famous Progressives. He grew up kind of steeped in politics.

And Gaylord would say he learned a lot of things growing up in a small town and to him he would say the most important one was civility—that when you live in a village of 700 people you really have to get along with everybody and you have to treat them with some respect, the way that you would like them to treat you because you’re going to see them again the next day, and the day after that. It was something that he carried over into his political life and he really tried to get along with everybody and not personalize political disagreements.

CURWOOD: Let’s fast forward now in young Gaylord Nelson’s career to the point that he’s governor of the state of Wisconsin and decides to put together this humongous program to protect a lot of open space, to increase the state parks and recreation areas.

CHRISTOFFERSON: It was a visionary plan that he was trying to pass that would protect open space and recreation land and wildlife habitat in the state. And at the time set the standard for the country once it became law, but although it was popular, there was resistance from the Republicans in the legislature and it all came down to a single vote in the state senate where there was a Republican who admired what he was doing and when the time came for the role call, the senator in question voted to pass the bill and the Republicans were stunned—had no idea it was coming.

The bill passed and went on to become kind of the centerpiece of his record as governor. It really stamped him nationally as a leading conservationist and started his national reputation.

CURWOOD: Gaylord Nelson goes to Washington, a freshman senator, that’s the bottom of the heap. There’s not much you can get done as a freshman on Capitol Hill.

CHRISTOFFERSON: Right. In fact, he was number 100 in seniority. He adapted to the system, began to find his way along and befriend people. He really embodied this whole idea about reaching across the aisle and working with Republicans.

His whole career, it was the carry over of that small town thing about being civil to people. He was really curious about what made people tick, and would get to know people on a personal basis. He began immediately, even before he was sworn in to try to push an environmental agenda. His main goal in life at that point was to try to get the environment on the nation’s political agenda and make it part of the debate.

CURWOOD: So here it is, 1962, 1963, Gaylord Nelson is pushing for the environment in this time of most conspicuous consumption. I was a kid back then, I remember cars got bigger and bigger fins—of course there was also this counterculture movement and the concern about civil rights, the war in Vietnam. How does Nelson fit into this context of time and culture? And how did it affect how he went about his work of promoting the environment?

CHRISTOFFERSON: I think a lot of those things you mentioned are inter-related or at least helped lay the groundwork for the environmental movement that he launched. The ‘60s people we’re becoming politically active on those other issues—on the war, women’s issues, civil rights—he could sense that there was a growing awareness that we were also getting ourselves in trouble, environmentally with pollution.

And it was one of those cases where the people were way out in front of the politicians. Everywhere he went and talked local people would tell him about some issue, usually a local issue—that landfill was leaching into the drinking water, all those sort of local stories that people were aware of, that people were beginning to figure out something was going on. And so Gaylord tapped that kind of underlying current of awareness about the environment and the urge to do something and couple it with the kind of activism that the ‘60s had produced.

CURWOOD: Gaylord Nelson has a lot of credibility with the counterculture movement, the protest movement, when calls for a teach-in April 22nd, 1970, and people start to organize.

CHRISTOFFERSON: Basically, he was reading a magazine article about teach-ins on college campuses about Vietnam and the light came on, and he said why don’t we have a teach in about the environment? And so, in September 1969 in Seattle he announced that there would be a teach-in next spring.

And eventually his office was inundated with calls and letters and contacts from people who wanted to be involved, and not just college campuses, but people from all walks of life and all levels of school and community groups. And it was only seven months after his speech that Earth Day came around and 20 million people, at the time that was ten percent of the population in the country, did something on Earth Day.

He never could have dreamed when he suggested the teach-in that that was going to be the result. Or that it would end up in this on-going institutionalized thing where now people in hundreds of countries do it. Last year the Earth Day Network said a billion people did something on Earth Day. Gaylord never could have conceived of that when he thought it up.

CURWOOD: You recount in your book how the FBI monitored the Earth Day events around the country. What kind of criticism and opposition did he face in setting up Earth Day? I mean this is an event that—what, Barry Goldwater, the ultraconservative Republican spoke at one university, and how many Democratic senators spoke?

CHRISTOFFERSON: It was interesting; they had to shut down congress that day because so many members had been invited to speak on Earth Day back in their home districts. Most of them had to come to Gaylord’s office to get some material because they’d never giving an environmental speech in their lives at the time.

And although it was wildly popular, it’s not like there were no critics of Earth Day. The John Birch Society claimed that April 22nd, 1970 was nothing but a thinly disguised plot by Gaylord Nelson to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin. This is all a communist plot.

It sounds crazy, but enough people took it seriously enough that he decided he had to have an answer. Finally, he said April 22nd was the birth of Saint Francis of Assisi who some people think is the world’s first environmentalist. And it was the birthday of Queen Isabella. And most importantly, it was the birthday of my aunt Tilley. So he could use humor to diffuse things.

CURWOOD: How much do you think people working on Earth Day back in 1970—how much to you think they ever envisioned a 40th Earth Day? Or do you think they thought that the problem would be solved by then?

CHRISTOFFERSON: [LAUGHS] I think Gaylord envisioned Earth Day as a onetime, one-of-a-kind thing, but part of the genius of it is that it became institutionalized, but mainly in the schools, but also in a lot of community groups and environmental organizations and others around the country who keep Earth Day alive. It happens really at the grassroots level. It has a life of its own now.

CURWOOD: Gaylord Nelson died in 2005. How satisfied do you think he was with what he had accomplished?

CHRISTOFFERSON: I think he accomplished more than he ever imagined he could when he was growing up as this kid in Clearlake, Wisconsin. And in terms of his legacy, I think his most important legacy is what he called an environmental ethic.

Kids and young people on every level now grow up with some environmental education and awareness, and they understand that they have some responsibility for the environment. That’s an environmental ethic, that is something that instilled in at least a couple generations now that was never there before Earth Day, certainly wasn’t there when I was growing up and I think we owe a lot of that to Gaylord Nelson.

CURWOOD: Bill Christofferson is a historian and political consultant. Thanks so much.

CHRISTOFFERSON: Oh, thanks so much for having me, Steve, I am always happy to talk about Gaylord.

CURWOOD Back on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, I marched, but not with a lot of enthusiasm. I was more concerned about the War, and the campaigns for civil and women’s rights. But this huge demo, as we called them, promised to be peaceful, and a lot of my friends would be there.

The late Senator Gaylord Nelson. (Photo: Fritz Albert)

YOUNG: My first Earth Day event was in 1990. That 20th Earth Day saw a resurgence of interest in all things green. But our campus environmental group was dismayed by the level of corporate “greenwashing” that came along with it—we ended up protesting an oil refinery’s involvement in Earth Day.

CURWOOD: One other thing about Earth Day 1990—it’s also when I started this program. Living on Earth’s first broadcasts included a debate over the use of nuclear power to combat global warming, famed diver Sylvia Earle on the state of the oceans, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson talking about environmental justice. More than 100 NPR stations carried those first four programs, but pollsters told us 86 percent of the public had little interest in hearing about climate change…it’s been a short 20 years.

[MUSIC: Jefferson Airplane: “Wooden Ships” from Volunteers (BMG Records 2004 Reissue)]

CURWOOD: Keep listening to Living on Earth!



Click here to learn more about Gaylord Nelson and his legacy.


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