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Apr 22 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Honoring Gaylord Nelson

It’s hard to imagine that 40 years ago, 20 million people, or 10% of the U.S. population, participated in Earth Day.

Earth Day was the brainchild of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson.

On April 20 and 21, the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies held a conference entitled “Earth Day at Forty: Valuing Wisconsin’s Environmental Traditions, Past, Present and Future.”

The conference was terrific and included a number of fantastic speakers, including author Margaret Atwood and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Atwood talked about the need for power to be decentralized, and proposed a new principle for the environmental justice movement: Eco-Mercy. Rather than haggling over injustice, let’s focus on compassion.

Kennedy acted as the provocateur, saying “the best thing for the environment is free market capitalism.” He said what we have now is “corporate crony capitalism.” It’s time to end all the subsidies—hidden and obvious ones—of the carbon-based economy. De-carbonization will lead to prosperity, he said.

Tia Nelson, the Senator’s daughter, spoke tenderly about her “Papa” and how he never would’ve imagined that his legacy would be forty years of environmental activism.

Senator Nelson wrote about the degradation of our planet in the pages of The Progressive. In 1967, he wrote a piece for us entitled, “The National Pollution Scandal.”

“The natural environment of America—the woods and waters and wildlife, the clear air and blue sky, the fertile soil and the scenic landscape—is threatened with destruction,” Senator Nelson wrote. He outlined “this new American tragedy,” and noted, “It must be attacked for what it is: a sinister byproduct of the prosperous, urbanized, industrialized world in which we live.”

In November 1969, he wrote a piece for The Progressive called, “Our Polluted Planet.”

“I am convinced that all that is needed now is the trigger to activate the overwhelming insistence of the new generation on environmental quality,” he predicted. “It is the young who can begin to stem the tide of disaster. To marshal such an effort, I am proposing a National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment to be held next spring on every university campus across the nation. The crisis is so imminent, in my opinion, that every university should set aside one day in the school year—the same day across the nation—for the Teach-In.”

Tia Nelson spoke about Gaylord’s numerous attempts to get Congress and Presidents to take seriously the destruction of our landscapes. The original Earth Day would not have happened without the Senator’s willingness to fail over and over again. Earth Day, she said, spoke to the power of an individual to make change.

But individual acts are not enough. As Kennedy noted, where there’s environmental destruction, there’s also a destruction of democracy. Elected officials need to be visionaries like Gaylord Nelson, and create policies that will end pollution-based prosperity.

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