Earth Day’s Bipartisan Legacy, 50 Years Later

April 22, 2020

In 1970, Sen. Gaylord Nelson and an enormous grassroots movement held the first Earth Day. Nelson’s daughter, Tia Nelson, discusses how the environmental movement has changed in the last 50 years.

In 1970, Sen. Gaylord Nelson and an enormous grassroots movement held the first Earth Day. Nelson’s daughter, Tia Nelson, discusses how the environmental movement has changed in the last 50 years.


(Original Caption) 4/22/1970-New York, NY- Fifth Avenue, reminiscent of some European promenade, is filled with thousands of people just after the fashionable street was closed to motor traffic at noon on Earth Day. Conceived as a national teach-in, patterned after the Vietnam teach-ins held on hundreds of campuses in the Spring of 1965, Earth Day is a nation-wide demonstration of concern for the planet and all forms of life--not only man--who live on it. Bettmann/Getty Images

Story Transcript

This story is broadcast as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story and a week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.


This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Kim Brown: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Kim Brown. On April 22nd, 1970, over 20 million activists across the United States participated in the first ever Earth Day. It was before the environmental movement focused on climate change. Instead, it focused on issues such as ecological overshoot, water and air pollution and unbridled economic growth.

The first Earth Day came just months after the Santa Barbara offshore oil spilling in California, the largest in US history at the time. Although it took a massive level of grassroots organizing to pull it off, the movement also had a major leader inside of the halls of power. His name was Gaylord Nelson. He was a US Senator, a Wisconsin Democrat and he had visited the Santa Barbara oil spill site in its aftermath. Inspired by the anti-Vietnam war teachings at the time and concerned about the lack of congressional action on environmental issues, Nelson created a nonprofit called the Environmental Teach-In, Incorporated.

Nelson’s advocacy eventually took a life of its own through grassroots organizing and came to be known as Earth Day. Here to talk about this history and connected to the present is Tia Nelson. She is the daughter of the late Gaylord Nelson, the former Senator. Tia is the managing director of the Outrider Foundation’s Climate Program, and she has served as the executive secretary of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands in Wisconsin from 2004 through 2015. She was a director of the Global Climate Change Initiative at the Nature Conservancy for 17 years as well. She joins us today from Washington, DC area. Tia, thank you so much for being here.

Tia Nelson: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m happy to be here and help tell the story of the first Earth Day.

Kim Brown: So Tia, we are 50 years removed since the first Earth Day. Can you share with us what you remember about that day in 1970?

Tia Nelson: I’m often asked what my first memories of Earth Day are. I was in junior high school in the DC metropolitan area going to what was then called Kensington Junior High. I was picking up trash on the school grounds. I didn’t have a sense of the significance of the event at that time.

Kim Brown: What kind of an imprint did it leave on you, especially at that time? I mean, it was sort of grooming you to be a future activist.

Tia Nelson: Well, I adored my father. He and I were very close. At a very young age, I became interested in what he was doing and I had a sense that he was doing something important. I certainly had a strong that public service was an honorable calling. He served in the United States Senate with Bobby Kennedy. They were seatmates. I had this big crush on Bobby. I begged my father to let me go to the Senate with him when I didn’t have school. I’d open mail in his office in the morning and go over and see Bobby in the afternoon.

I certainly had a sense that he was doing really important things, but I don’t think I’d recognized the significance of Earth Day until probably the decade old anniversary in 1980. Of course, it was a surprise to my father. His original idea was in environmental teach-in, a call to action to teachers across the country to set aside a day to teach on the environment. He hoped through youth engagement and activism that he could shake Washington out of its lethargy and get it talking about what he thought were the most important issues of the time. It was successful beyond his wildest dreams.

Kim Brown: So Walter Cronkite, the veteran legendary broadcaster, described those participating in the first Earth Day in a way that a lot of environmentalists or environmental activists are… describe present day as mostly white and affluent. Let’s listen to what Walter Cronkite had to say.

Walter Cronkite: At one measurement, Earth Day failed. It did not unite. It did attract a broad cross-section of America its sponsors wanted. Not quite. Its demonstrators were predominantly young, predominantly white, predominantly anti-Nixon. Often, its protests appeared frivolous, its protestors, curiously carefree.

Kim Brown: But in a 1970 speech given by your father at the time, this was before the first Earth Day in Milwaukee, Senator Nelson pointed to the connection between waging war in Southeast Asia and pollution within America’s inner cities.

Gaylord Nelson: And our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty while forgetting about the worst environments in America, in the ghettos, and in Appalachias and elsewhere. Our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings and all other living creatures, an environment without ugliness, without ghettos, without poverty, without discrimination, without hunger and without war.

Kim Brown: So this sounds like the paradigm that we see today as environmental justice or climate justice. Can you explain what Senator Nelson was trying to convey here and what he meant when he called ecology a big science in that same speech?

Tia Nelson: Well, I love that… Thank you for mentioning that. I love that a speech in that clip is included in a film that the Outrider Foundation has produced with youth activist Varshini Prakash and Republican climate change advocate, Bob Inglis. My father said ecology is a big science, not a narrow science. It includes the worst environments in America, in the inner city, and in Appalachia.

I found a print version of that speech in a bookshelf here in my mother’s house where we’re sequestered, like millions of Americans and billions of people around the world. The print version says the environment includes rats in the ghetto and public housing unworthy of its name. So my father’s original call to action in 1970, 50 years ago, think about this, that call to action was one seen through this broader social justice lens that frankly, the environmental community has only recently embraced better late than never.

But my father’s call to action 50 years ago was multi-generational, it was bipartisan and it was a social justice lens through which he viewed the environment. And the environment wasn’t just pristine places where affluent white-skinned people could escape to enjoy nature. It included the environments in the inner city. It included public housing and worthy of its name.

I think it’s certainly a failing on the part of the environmental community that it took us so long to hear that part of his message. I think we’re making great progress in that regard now, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Kim Brown: Tia, I wanted to ask, because much of our current environmental policies were shaped and passed in 1970s, most notably, of course, the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. And so much of the science that was available in the ’70s still is applicable to the laws that we have on the books some 50 years later. But to even get any sort of environmental regulations passed, it required bipartisan approaches where the Republican President Richard Nixon was even amenable to signing off on such legislation to create laws that would guard our air, and our water.

So at that point, I mean, what do you think drove that bipartisanship that we really don’t see today, we don’t see the coming together of Republicans and Democrats to support the environment or to support initiatives embracing clean air and water? It’s viewed mostly as a democratic thing.

Tia Nelson: Yes, which is unfortunate, right? Because regardless of your political persuasion, or how old you are, or your economic standing, we all need to breathe clean air and drink clean water to prosper, you know? I think that the first Earth Day, one of its significant successes was that it brought the country together. Now keep in mind, the country was very divided in 1970, divided over the war. There was a lot of partisan bickering. My father was on Richard Nixon’s enemy list for his early opposition to the war and yet President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. More environmental laws were passed in the decade that followed the first Earth Day than any other time in American history.

Congress adjourned on that day and most every congressman, Democrat or Republican, went home to their district and participated in an Earth Day event. The Clean Air Act was adopted, and the Clean Water Act was adopted. Those are really significant, noteworthy and historically important milestones that the issue the environment has become politically divisive and partisan in the manner that it has is a source of great despair for me. It’s one of the reasons I thought it was so important to include Bob Inglis’s voice in our film to look at the past, the present and the future of the environmental movement on the anniversary of Earth Day.

I have to believe that Republicans and Progressives and Democrats can come together in a common understanding that our economic wellbeing, the wellbeing of the public health, our rights to breathe clean air and drink clean water, these know no political boundaries. I puzzle a lot over how we’ve become so politically divided. I have my own theories. I don’t think I’m smart or perhaps wise enough to really know the answer. I’ve got to believe that the Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, played a significant role because of the dark money from special interests that was allowed to pour into political campaigns and further corrupt our democracy, that that had a significant influence.

Kim Brown: Lastly, Tia, I want us to zoom in a bit on Wisconsin, a state where your father did go on to serve as governor. And to say that the politics of the state have been turbulent for the past 10 years or so is an understatement. I know you know this very well because you served as a member of the Board Of Commissioners for Public Lands. So how does a state which produced Gaylord Nelson or a rust find gold both in the tradition of fighting Bob LaFollette and the progressive era in Wisconsin also produce polar opposites like Senator Joe McCarthy, Governor Scott Walker, and former Majority Leader Paul Ryan? What political forces have driven those changes and what’s different in Wisconsin today than it was say a generation ago?

Tia Nelson: The question you ask is an interesting one. Wisconsin does have a really long tradition as the home of progressive political voices going back a hundred years. The answer to how we’ve changed and become a purple state, I think, is a complicated and perhaps nuanced one. I think that there was a growing resentment and distrust towards government that has occurred across the country that is not unique to Wisconsin.

Personally, I think that gerrymandering of congressional legislative districts played a significant role and is eroding our sense of… and opportunity to be a robust democracy. It’s quite unfortunate, whether you think of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case or the fact that we in Wisconsin have the most gerrymandered state in the country, and it’s not healthy. Look at the election results. Tony Evers, our sitting governor, got 100,000 more votes than a Democrat than… forgive me, than the Republicans did in the legislature, yet the legislature picked up seats. How do you explain that? The maths doesn’t work, right? We are living in deeply troubling and challenging times in terms of the health and wellbeing of our democratic institutions and it’s everything from dark money to gerrymandering to the sort of corrosiveness of our political culture at this time.

Kim Brown: Well, it was April 22nd, 1970 when millions of activists gathered to celebrate the earth and to make a stand and a statement regarding policies and actions needed to protect the earth and clean air and water. Today, we’ve been speaking with Tia Nelson. She is the managing director of the Outrider Foundation’s Climate Program. She’s also the daughter of the late Gaylord Nelson, who served as a senator and governor from the state of Wisconsin, and who also served as a friend on earth-friendly policies while he was in leadership.

Tia, we appreciate your time so much and thank you so much for speaking with us.

Tia Nelson: Thank you. I’m grateful.

Kim Brown: As are we. Thank you for watching The Real News Network.