When the Earth Moved
What happened to the environmental movement?
by Nicholas Lemann April 15, 2013
In September 20, 1969, Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, gave a lightly publicized speech in Seattle in which he remarked, “I am convinced that the same concern the youth of this nation took in changing this nation’s priorities on the war in Vietnam and on civil rights can be shown for the problem of the environment. That is why I plan to see to it that a national teach-in is held.” Nelson had been pushing environmental issues for some years, initially worried that water pollution was hurting fishing, canoeing, and other forms of outdoor recreation in his state. In 1963, as a freshman senator, he persuaded President John F. Kennedy to stage a national “conservation tour” to talk about the issue. Kennedy visited eleven states in five days, just two months before his assassination, but the trip was a bust: anemic crowds, little attention, and not much obvious passion from Kennedy himself.
But Nelson’s idea of a national teach-in took off, to an extent that surprised even him. On April 22, 1970, only seven months after his speech in Seattle, the teach-in, dubbed Earth Day, generated more than twelve thousand events across the country, many of them in high schools and colleges, with more than thirty-five thousand speakers. “Today” devoted ten hours of airtime to it. Congress took the day off, and two-thirds of its members spoke at Earth Day events. In all, millions of people participated. This activity was largely uncoördinated. Earth Day had a tiny national staff-a handful of young activists-and there were no big environmental groups around to get behind it. The staff imposed minimal central direction over the local activity, and chose not to put on a main event, like a march on Washington.
Adam Rome’s genial new book, “The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation” (Hill & Wang), brings to life another era. We’re as distant from Earth Day as the Battle of Gettysburg was from James Monroe’s reëlection, and Rome evokes a United States that feels, politically, like a foreign country. There were a number of liberal Republicans. Most active members of environmental groups were hunters and fishermen. The Sierra Club was an actual club that required new members to be proposed by old ones. The Environmental Defense Fund was two years old. Things like bottle recycling and organic food were exotic.
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