There are many ways in which to honor the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the national teach-in that transformed a broad but unfocused discourse about pollution into an urgent demand for government action to clean our air and our water, to protect our environment and to recognize the threats posed by an over-reliance on carbon-based fuels that warp our transportation choices, our economic models and our climate.
The teach-ins, the urgent demands and the government interventions are still needed.
But so, too, is the leadership that was provided by the U.S. senator who imagined, called for and made real the promise of the first Earth Day in 1970.
That senator, Wisconsin’s Gaylord Nelson, was a bold progressive who recognized the need to make the health and welfare of human beings, in the United States and abroad, a priority over the profits of multinational corporations. Nelson was often a critic of the excesses of government; he shared former President Dwight Eisenhower’s concern about an all-powerful "military-industrial complex" undermining democracy and he was a civil libertarian who worried about the packing of the courts with conservative judicial activists who would side with presidents who would assaults our privacy rights in particular and basic freedoms in general. But he understood, as a former governor and longtime legislator, that when government served as the expression of the popular will, is could do good.
Nelson was frustrated by the failure of Congress and the White House of Richard Nixon to address environmental issues. So he used Earth Day to forge and focus the popular will necessary to generate a sufficient official response to the pollution of our air and water by corporations that cared more about their bottom lines than the health of families that lived near their facilities.
The senator sought nothing less than "a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda."
Nelson’s strategu succeeded. The first Earth Day was, according to American Heritage magazine, "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy."
Within months of Earth Day, the Congress was moving to enact a Clean Air Act and a Clean Water Act, and to create an Environmental Protection Agency. And Nixon was signing the bills.
The first Earth Day proved to be everything Nelson hoped it would be.
But he understood that there would need to be more Earth Days, as the struggle to protect the environment needed to be a permanent one.
Nelson participated in Earth Day events until his death in 2005, long after he had left the Senate.
Nelson’s Senate seat is now occupied by a Democrat who shares his vision.
That senator, Russ Feingold, took to the floor of the chamber this week to celebrate Nelson’s legacy, which is important. But he was also there to provide the leadership that is needed today. In particular, Feingold sought support for a sweeping new Clean Water Restoration Act.
Here’s what Feingold told the Senate Wednesday:
I come to the floor to recognize the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and to remember the man who founded Earth Day, the late Wisconsin governor and Senator Gaylord Nelson. Before he was the founder of Earth Day, and one of the nation’s greatest conservationists, he was a son of Wisconsin. He was a young boy growing up in the town of Clear Lake, Wisconsin, amid the great natural beauty of our state. When asked how he developed his lifelong interest and dedication to the environment, Nelson would say "by osmosis" while growing up in Clear Lake, Wisconsin.
He reflected the very best of our state from the beginning, building on Wisconsin’s long tradition of environmental conservation. Our state passed landmark forest and waterpower conservation acts during the progressive era, and lays claim not only to Gaylord Nelson, but to other giants of the conservation movement like Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Sigurd Olson.
All of them were inspired, as Nelson was, by the beautiful Wisconsin wilderness. The natural beauty of our state charted the course of Nelson’s life, from the shores of Clear Lake to the banks of the Potomac, where he changed the way we think about our planet, and changed the law to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe.
There are few members of this body, past or present, who have left such a valuable legacy. Today I’m proud to help celebrate that legacy with a resolution in the House and Senate celebrating the 40th anniversary of Earth Day and its founder. And as we look ahead to the many challenges we face, we can draw strength from the example Gaylord set for us all. He drove tremendous change, and, with Earth Day, created a new momentum that has been critical to so many efforts to protect the health of our environment.
Gaylord also understood the connection between the two great Wisconsin traditions of fiscal responsibility and conservation. Too often, a federal program that is wasting taxpayer dollars is also laying waste to our air, our water, or our public lands. The nation’s outdated mining laws are a perfect example – these laws allow mining companies to mine on our public lands for next to nothing, and leave behind an environmental mess for taxpayers to clean up. Gaylord fought to change those laws, and when I was elected to the Senate, he asked me to take up this fight, and I have. I’ve made it part of my Control Spending Now Act, legislation to cut the deficit by about one half trillion dollars over the next ten years. If we scrap these outdated mining laws, we can save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and protect the public lands that belong to the American people, not mining companies.
I’m also working on another environmental issue that has a special connection to Gaylord Nelson, and that’s clean water. The man from Clear Lake did so much for clear, clean water everywhere, including being a champion of the Clean Water Act. Today the Clean Water Act is under threat because two recent Supreme Court decisions have jeopardized its protections. Those decisions put nearly 20 million acres of wetlands habitat and more than 50 percent of our stream miles in the lower 48 states at risk. These waters could become polluted or wiped out altogether unless Congress takes action.
I’m working to see that Congress stands up to the special interests that want to roll back the Clean Water Act’s protections, and ensure that these bodies of water can continue to provide drinking water, wildlife habitat, recreation, and support for industry and agriculture for generations of Wisconsinites to come. I have joined with Minnesota Representative Jim Oberstar to introduce the Clean Water Restoration Act. This bill is designed to accomplish one basic and important goal — ensure that the Clean Water Act of 1972 stays in place. There are no new regulations in our legislation, only a return to the original intent of the Clean Water Act, which has protected our waters for more than 35 years.
Gaylord Nelson and others have done so much to protect the health of our waters, and we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to carry that legacy forward. That’s what I seek to do in the Senate with the Clean Water Restoration Act.
We face many other challenges as well. Of course climate change looms largest of all. We need to address the serious problem of climate change, and do so without unfairly hurting Wisconsin, which relies on coal for much of its energy needs. If we do this right, we have an opportunity to pass legislation that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create energy jobs here in America. We can help American businesses gain a competitive advantage developing new renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.
The desire to protect our air, our water and our planet will bring people together tomorrow, all around the world. They will talk about global issues we face, and the local environmental issues in their communities that they want to address. They will organize, mobilize, and galvanize new momentum for change. And that’s exactly what Gaylord Nelson intended. He knew the power of people coming together, and what that could mean for the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the national parks and public lands we all cherish. He knew that these natural resources connect us all, and that Earth Day would bring us together to protect them.
I’m grateful to have known Gaylord Nelson, and I’m proud of the legacy he left behind. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, we remember the man from Clear Lake, who came to this body inspired by the beautiful Wisconsin landscape of his childhood, and in the end made a better world for us all.
It is right and good to honor Gaylord Nelson’s legacy this day, along with the legacy of all the pioneering conservationists and environmental activists who made the first Earth Day a success.
But it is equally right and good to recognize how Nelson would have preferred that legacy to be honored.
He would have wanted this Earth Day to inspire a new environmental moment where a Clean Water Restoration Act will be enacted, along with meaningful legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create energy jobs.
As his successor so well and wisely reminds us: Gaylord Nelson intended Earth Day to "organize, mobilize, and galvanize new momentum for change."
We should all share that intention, just as we should all join Russ Feingold in the essential work of making real not just the legacy but the promise of Gaylord Nelson’s Earth Day vision.