Earth Day has a special meaning in Wisconsin. Gaylord Nelson, former U.S. Senator and Governor of this great state, founded Earth Day in 1970. He announced the idea of a “national teach-in on the environment” after witnessing a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara California in 1969.
“If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda.” Gaylord Nelson
The first Earth Day brought 20 million people demonstrating coast to coast for a healthy, sustainable environment. The event was supported by republicans and democrats, urbanites and farmers, CEOs and labor leaders.
“Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time not the resources to organize the 20 million demonstrators who participated from thousands of schools and local communities. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”
Madison’s first Earth Day was similar to celebrations in other large university settings. Supporters met on Picnic Point at 4:45 am to greet the sun with a Sanskrit innvocation and read together from Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Thoreau and the Bible. The city and university held film festivals, an environmental art show, field trips and workshops. The celebration went on for a week.
Though the media portrayed the activists of the first Earth Day as “predominantly young and predominately white”, Gayloard Nelson had a different take. His speeches on Earth Day emphasized that “the environment must also include poverty, hunger, and urban blight.” Nelson also said, “Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human being and all living creatures.”