Earth Day: What Its Founder Said About the Environment 46 Years Ago

Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.), an environmental champion, founded the nation’s first Earth Day and helped to draw millions of people out for events on April 22, 1970, to improve the the nation’s air and water.

In a 1971 letter outlining how the day came to pass, Nelson said he thought environmental issues “could get political attention by having a nationwide environmental day patterned after the Vietnam teach-ins two or three years earlier.”


Nelson spoke on that first Earth Day at various events, and during his remarks in Denver, the Wisconsin Democrat argued an unhealthy environment fed society’s worst problems.

“Earth Day can—and it must—lend a new urgency and a new support to solving the problems that still threaten to tear the fabrics of this society. The problems of race, of war, of poverty, of modern-day institutions. … Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing that is not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.”


Environmental quality “is going to require new national policies that quite frankly will interfere with what many have considered their right to use and abuse the air, the water, the land, just because that is what we have always done,” he said.

Video of Nelson’s separate remarks in Milwaukee that day can be seen here.

Of course, Nelson’s efforts bore fruit. President Richard Nixon sent a plan to Congress that July establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. A wave of environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and others, soon passed Congress.