The Truly American Environmentalist Movement

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the American Environmentalist movement.

By Kayla Parker.

The modern Environmentalist movement has seen a flurry of activity following the “Code Red” announcement of the UN report on climate change in August. Hosting protests and calls to action now 365 days a year, Environmentalism has grown in means and in might since its conception as but a single day of national awareness: Earth Day 1970. On April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million people nationwide participate in protests, teach-ins, clean-ups, and more to draw attention to the decaying state of the environment—birthing Environmentalism. Now a worldwide call to action, Earth Day continues to be celebrated and used to enact environmental change. What is in some ways a genuine collective impulse toward action, is in other ways a non-inclusive movement. Since its commencement, Environmentalism has been criticized as a movement that the White middle and upper class can feel unthreatened by; it has failed to address these underlying issues. The protest-saturated era in which Earth Day began allows it to succeed, however, it is argued it does so at the cost of attention toward issues of social justice, racial conflict, and the Vietnam war. In Newspaper articles from 1970s Madison, photos of Ecology flags (the flag associated with Earth Day) are scattered between anti-war cries and civil rights pleas. To understand the impact of Earth Day 1970, its successes and its shortcomings must be examined. Producing a movement with real and consequential staying power, who is involved in that movement is just as vital to the story as how it came to be.

-Political cartoon that features the US “Industry” destroying the environment with pollution
“April 22: Environmental Action,” By Environmental Teach-In Inc. (folding brochure, 1970) pg. 6.

Earth Day 1970 is proposed and thusly created by Wisconsin Senator, Gaylord Nelson. Propelled by the power evoked from and the anti-war and civil rights movements of the time, Nelson directs the energy of the already empowered society toward Environmentalism. Nelson creates a fruitful Earth Day by providing the date, the resources, and the idea while allowing local coalitions to design their forum. By promoting a teach-in functionality, he induces a boom in the environmental field of study, arousing interest in the subject and allowing people to discover the problem all on their own—a discovery that provokes decades of action. Environmental coalitions and local groups across the country get creative in garnering support for the April 22nd Earth Day, planning scavenger hunts, fairs, fundraisers, and lectures in the months leading up to the grand event.

Gaylord Nelson speaking on Earth Day 1970 in Denver
“Gaylord Nelson Speaking,” Photograph. From Wisconsin Historical Society: Gaylord Nelson papers, 1954-2006.

UW Madison’s campus, a protesting hotspot, has a massive demonstration of their own. The campus hosts clean-ins, teach-ins, and is visited by Nelson on his speaking tour across America. The newspapers advertise Environmentalist activities taking place before, during, and after April 22, 1970. A charming description of Earth Day in Madison is captured in Nelson’s Newsletter: “In Madison, Wis., Earth Day was observed at sunrise over Lake Mendota with a Sanskrit invocation and a reading of the last chapter of the Book of Genesis with an apology to God for man’s assaults on the landscape.”[1] Nelson, a Wisconsin Native and politician, is long a champion for environmental protections in Wisconsin and eventually nation-wide. While his legacy is cemented in his materialization of the Environmentalist movement, UW Madison immortalizes his Wisconsin connection by naming the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies in his honor in 2002. Nelson’s newsletter states that the goal of Environmentalism is “an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all living creatures—without hunger, without poverty and without war,”[2] a blanket sentiment that glorifies the mission while cloaking its shortcomings.

A comic of people attempting to hold onto the earth or face falling into space from a 1970 news paper
“Environmental Action: April 22,” Periodical. March 03, 1970. From Wisconsin Historical Society: Gaylord Nelson Papers 1954-2006.  Records/Image/IM80854.

A greater cultural phenomenon informing Environmentalism is the anti-war movement. Borrowing both the teach-in and self-determined structures of the anti-war organizers, Nelson establishes connections between the movements early and intentionally. Though sometimes criticized for its “not-so-liberal liberalism”[3] by Vietnam crowds, the movements generally support each other. In their own independent protests, one could often find information on how to get involved in the other, reporting their goals as intertwined. Nelson’s second in command, Daniel Hayes, promises that Americans can be concerned with more than one issue at a time, and that the movements had the collective goal of making “the probability of life greater, and the quality of life higher.”[4] While the Environmentalists may have the intention of working alongside anti-war protestors, the media uses the new movement as an excuse to divert attention away from Vietnam. The Daily Cardinal reports that “Nixon, in typically tricky style, has announced his sanctimonious and grave concern. Every speech he gives on ecology allows him to avoid talking about the Southeast Asian wars which are doing more to produce disharmony between the people of those countries and their environment than any other force on earth.”[5] The conflict between the anti-war and Environmentalist movements starts and ends with media attention, but Environmentalists have a far more difficult time establishing a relationship with the Civil Rights movement, and—more generally—Black Americans.

Earth day 1970 march in Madison in front of the Capitol building with someone holding an Ecology flag
Fritz, Bruce. “Earth Day March near Wisconsin State Capitol.” Photograph. From Wisconsin Historical Society: Bruce Fritz negatives, 1969-1977.

Where the environmental movement coordinates with anti-war protestors to ensure they can share the stage, they vaguely mention the Civil Rights movement. It is not for a lack of connections to be made between movements, rather the gap between the two seems insurmountable given the lack of interest in establishing communication. There are surface-level efforts to relate the Civil Rights and Ecology movements: a couple of panels are assembled to discuss the disproportionate impact of a bad environment on Black Americans, and Black community members sometimes form coalitions to participate in the nation-wide teach-in on April 22nd. Widely, though, the Environmentalist movement only vaguely aspires to include the Black community. When addressed, issues of race are lumped in with comments on the anti-war movement, establishing the Black community as an afterthought. Frivolous money spending on corny environmentalist points further exacerbates the divide between them and Black activists attempting to establish an equitable community. This is exemplified when an environmentally-framed event hosted by San Jose State College is picketed by Black students for purchasing and burying a brand-new car—money that would go a lot further in Black low-income neighborhoods. Black and White UW Madison students host an “Environmental Scream-out: An open forum on intellectual pollution—the diversion from the ghetto and the war” to establish their discontent with the Environmentalist movement.[6] Given the movement’s negligence to establish a relationship with Black Americans, it takes on a shroud of Whiteness—one that has yet to be shed.

Gaylord Nelson as the keynote speaker at UW Madison’s Earth Day demonstration in 1970
Fritz, Bruce. “Gaylord Nelson Speaking.” Photograph. From Wisconsin Historical Society: Bruce Fritz negatives, 1969-1977.

Earth Day 1970 can hardly be viewed as simply a protest; it builds a grassroots movement whose modern incantation continues to thrive. A true product of its era—it derives inertia from surrounding movements and their social dominance. The end of 1970 brings the Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Air Act, additional legislation to clean rivers and lakes, and protect drinking water, among other lasting eco-infrastructure outside the government. Its rhetoric of inclusivity has severe limitations—serving as an arena in which to score social points. The movement focuses on its intended rather than its actual impact of serving a primarily White agenda that has stayed with the movement. As the state of the environment worsens and each human finds themselves increasingly aligned with the Environmentalist mindset, the movement transitions into a social and biological necessity. Amid modern incarnations of anti-war and civil rights protests, the Environmentalist movement finds itself in a familiar place. Perhaps this time its intent will match its action, for it will take the world to save the world.

Earth Day March in Madison
– Fritz, Bruce. “Earth Day March.” Photograph. From Wisconsin Historical Society: Bruce Fritz negatives, 1969-1977.

[1] “Earth Day – 1970: Mass Movement Begins” The Gaylord Nelson Newsletter, Washington, D.C., May 1970, 1.

[2] Ibid, 2.

[3] Adam Rome,” The Genius of Earth Day,” Environmental History 15 (April 2010): 194-205, doi: 10.1093/envhis/emq036, 199.

[4] Discord likely to grow, says Hayes,’” Environmental Action: April 22, Jan 31, 1970, 2.

[5] “Implications of Ecology,” The Daily Cardinal, April 22, 1970, 12.  

[6] Barry Commoner, “of war and pollution,” The Daily Cardinal, April 22, 1970, 24.