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.