Earth Day & Gaylord Nelson

I’ve written a few times about Earth Day (in 2017 and 2016) and thus, have written small bits about the “founding father” of this world-wide event, Gaylord Nelson. I had not, however, done much digging into the policies and legislation Nelson worked to pass as Governor and then as US Senator in the 1960s and 70s. As I did so this month, I was surprised to note the similarity between his ideas and those of today’s New Green Deal. Were people like Gaylord Nelson – and others like Aldo Leopold (who wrote about a land ethic in the 1930s) – ahead of their time or is this simply a commentary on how long the battle to save our environment has been waged?

Nelson spoke about how the environment is explicitly linked to the human experience and how caring for the environment is critical to addressing social justice issues. In his now famous Face the Nation address in April 1970 he stated:

“Some people who talk about the environment talk about it as though it involved only a question of clean air and clean water. The environment involves the whole broad spectrum of man’s relationship to all other living creatures, including other human beings. It involves the environment in its broadest and deepest sense. It involves the environment of the ghetto which is the worst environment, where the worst pollution, the worst noise, the worst housing, the worst situation in this country — that has to be a critical part of our concern and consideration in talking and cleaning up the environment.”

See the below video from that speech:

Nelson also believed that in caring for the Earth, jobs for the underemployed could be created and he advocated for programs like the Youth Conservation Corps in Wisconsin in the 1960s, and later the Community Environment Service which employed people on the national level to work on urban water and air pollution programs, and park planning and construction among other things. The Wisconsin Historical Society, on it’s website dedicated to Nelson, notes that he was known for “refusing to accept the notion that economic prosperity is at odds with environmental protection.”

Similarly, the Green New Deal, as summarized by the Green Party, aims to “create 20 million jobs by transitioning to 100% clean renewable energy by 2030, and investing in public transit, sustainable (regenerative) agriculture, conservation and restoration of critical infrastructure, including ecosystems.” Similar to Nelson’s view on clean air and water, the Green New Deal sees clean energy as a human right and a common good. Additionally, proponents of the Green New Deal – much like Nelson in the Vietnam War era – believe funds spent on military (defending global oil supplies in today’s case) would be better spent supporting domestic and environmental issues.

Some say the Green New Deal is too aggressive, that is sets unrealistic goals. Others, like New York Magazine contributor, David Wallace-Wells, describe it as a “dramatic break from climate policy-making that long defined itself by what was politically possible rather than what was necessary.” He sounds excited at the notion that policy might finally catch up with science. Were Nelson’s views and proposals as lofty and progressive in his time? Did protecting clean water and air seem an impossible goal? I wonder if Nelson imagined Earth Day would become the “largest civic observance in the world” with 200 million people participating in over 190 nations, or that nearly 50 years later we’d be having an eerily similar conversation about policy, environment, and social justice.

Nature Net News Flashback from 2008

The first Earth Day celebration in 1970, a grassroots movement 20 million strong, alerted the United States to environmental issues and helped instigate the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Since the 1970s, when only 36% of American stream miles were deemed safe for fishing and swimming, numerous environmental acts and conservation laws have been enacted and some would argue the result is a healthier, cleaner Earth.

Over the past several years, however, a unique environmental statistic has arisen: children don’t spend time outdoors. A surprising statement considering numerous studies prove spending free time in nature not only garners a greater sense of appreciation, curiosity and wonder among children, but learning and exploring in nature can help fight childhood obesity, ADHD, low self esteem, and depression. Environment-based exploration and learning is touted to strengthen problem solving skills, critical thinking, decision making, and creativity. Even “greening” school grounds by including free-play areas, gardens, trails and wildlife habitat increases academic success among students in addition to benefiting teachers, the school and the community. And if you’re looking to raise the next Gaylord Nelson, turns out it’s positive outdoor experiences in childhood, particularly with an adult mentor, that fosters the desire to protect or advocate for the environment. Find out more about these studies from the Children and Nature Network. Or, learn about and help support new environmental education legislation, the No Child Left Inside Act.

To Do This Month:

  • Attend the Nelson Institute’s 13th Annual Earth Day Conference on Monday April 22nd. See below (For Educators for more details).
  • Celebrate Earth Day with your neighbors and friends by volunteering to clean up your local park! Join this community-wide volunteer effort to make a difference and take part in an Earth Day Challenge Project near you.
  • Attend the Earth Day Celebration hosted by the UW-Arboretum. Learn about the Arboretum’s efforts to conserve plants, animals, and their habitats in a family friendly environment.
  • Enjoy the Spring weather and join in on the annual ultra-marathon running festival and relay race.  A fun, outdoor activity for the whole family to enjoy!
  • Visit one of the various Dane County Parks and participate in a restoration work day, lecture, or a number of other out door activities.
  • Welcome back the Dane County Farmers’ Market starting April 13th! Enjoy fresh produce, cheese, baked goods and so much more while supporting local farmers and businesses.

Find more fun and educational nature-related events on the Nature Net Calendar.

Paper Mache Globes

Favorite Earth Day Books

Lussier Family Heritage Center

Events This Month

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For Educators:

UW Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference 

The UW Nelson Institute – which is named in honor of Gaylord Nelson – is hosting their 13th Annual Earth Day Conference on Monday, April 22nd – Earth Day. This year’s theme is “Imagine And Adapt: Possibilities In a Changing World.” The one-day event at the Monona Terrace in Madison intends to “explore [climate change] challenges and resolutions through a number of straightforward, solution-focused sessions on topics such as adaptive infrastructure, environmental leadership, changes in agriculture and the cultural impact of climate change.”

The event kicks off with an address from former US Senator, Russ Feingold, and former Wisconsin Governor, Tommy Thompson – this I have to see!

Nature Net staff and others from the Nature Net community will be there to learn, listen, and share ideas. Hope to see you there!

And don’t forget: April 22-16 is National Environmental Education Week! If you have a school or community event planned, you can share it with the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) and join “the nation’s largest celebration of environmental education.” NEEF also offers a “Greening STEM” toolkit, and some promotional tips and tools for your Earth Day event.

For Families:

Earth Day Activities 

If you’re looking for a way to celebrate Earth Day with your family, Nature Net has your back. Our joint calendar of events is packed the whole month of April with free to low-cost classes, land steward days, guided hikes, and hands-on activities. Here are just a few highlights:

  • Thursday, April 18th – The Aldo Leopold Foundation is hosting a screening and discussion of “Green Fire,” the biographical movie about Aldo Leopold at the Spring Green Library.
  • Friday, April 19th – if your kids are off from school (Monona Grove), they can keep learning at Aldo Leopold Nature Center’s “Super Soils” Vacation Day program. Or, see how many glowing bunnies they can find in the depths of Cave of the Mounds‘ Underground Glow Egg-Stravaganza.
  • Saturday, April 20th – the International Crane Foundation is hosting an AZA “Party for the Planet” volunteer work day. You can also help with restoration work at the UW Arboretum’s Grady Tract, or learn about Hydrangeas at a Olbrich Gardens.
  • Sunday, April 21st – take a guided walk with UW Arboretum staff to search for signs of spring renewal.

There are also plenty of opportunities to get out on the trail and feel good about helping our state natural areas with the Department of Natural Resource’s Work*Play*Earth Day. This event, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the State Parks System’s “Friends Group” partnership program, offers volunteers the opportunity to plant tress, install benches, remove invasive species, or pick up litter. There are over 30 locations you can help out at over the next few weekends.


Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.