Earth Day: The Branches of the Conservation Movement

Figure 2: Earth Day, 1970 Noel Boenzi, The New York Times

The idea for the first Earth Day came from Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson, who, like many others, was terribly concerned about the deteriorating state of the environment.

In 1969, at a speech in Seattle, Senator Nelson suggested a simultaneous set of national environmental teach-ins for the spring of 1970. The environmental crisis, Nelson asserted, was “the most critical issue facing mankind,” making “Vietnam, nuclear war, hunger, decaying cities, and all the other major problems one could name… relatively insignificant by comparison.” On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated in the United States. Twenty million people participated in demonstrations and teach-ins around the country. In the energized months and years following the first Earth Day, President Nixon enacted the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Protection Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency. Concern for the environment became a patriotic value. In 1990, Earth Day was again a huge celebration across America and celebrated in 141 countries around the world. Today, there are hundreds of sites containing the phrase “Earth Day” accessible on the World Wide Web.

Gaylord Nelson reflecting on the impact of Earth Day in an article in the
1995 EPA Journal.”Since Earth Day 1970, Congress has enacted nearly 40 major federal environmental laws addressing a wide range of issues, including clean air, clean water, energy conservation, hazardous wastes, herbicides and pesticides. Dozens of individual public lands bills have been enacted since 1970 to designate or expand wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, national parks, and wildlife refuges. Perhaps most important, more than 80 percent of Americans now regard themselves as concerned environmentalists.Increasingly, we are coming to understand that air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity constitute the wealth of the nation. This is our capital. In short, these resources are all there is. That’s the whole economy. That’s where all the economic activity-and all the jobs-come from.At this point in history, no nation has managed to evolve into a sustainable society. All are pursuing a self-destructive course; we are fueling our economies by degrading our resource base.The challenge of creating a sustainable society implies a bigger destiny than Roosevelt was thinking about in 1936. I am optimistic the generation now preparing to take the helm will have the foresight and will do so.”


* For additional information see: Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day (