It’s April 22nd, 1970 in Denver, Colorado.
It’s a cold morning. The roads are icy and dirty clumps of snow dot the sidewalks.
But the freezing temperatures haven’t stopped the students at the local university from taking to the streets. Hundreds of them ride their bikes throughout the city. They’re all headed for the same place: Currigan Hall, a vast conference center in the heart of Denver.
Inside, banners hang from the walls and ceilings. And thousands of young people are gathered.
At the podium, US Senator Gaylord Nelson adjusts his glasses and looks out over the crowd who have come to hear him speak.
The fifty-year-old, balding politician looks unassuming in his simple and somber suit. But he’s a formidable figure. Senator Nelson may have just started a revolution.
As he addresses the crowd, there’s a slight fire in his eye:
"Nelson: Environment is all of America and its problems. It’s the rats in the ghetto. It’s a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing that’s not worthy of the name and neighborhoods not fit to inhabit. (crowd cheering in approval)”
This is the first ever “Earth Day”. The brainchild of Senator Nelson, it's a national protest against pollution and the largest coordinated demonstration in American history.
The event in Denver is just one of thousands like it taking place all across America. In New York, 5th Avenue is closed, the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic replaced by families with picnic blankets. In California, a 500-mile protest march is underway between Sacramento and Los Angeles. And in Boston, more than a dozen students are arrested for protesting at the airport against the jet planes polluting the skies.
But it’s not just the big cities taking part. This is a national grassroots movement with up to twenty million Americans attending rallies at churches and elementary schools, in village squares, and town halls.
Earth Day will eventually exceed all the hopes of its founder, Senator Nelson. It will push concerns about the health of the planet into the national spotlight, and it will help transform environmental protection laws in America. And it will inspire a worldwide movement for a cleaner, safer, and better future for humanity; a decades-long struggle that began with the first-ever Earth Day, on April 22nd, 1970.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 22nd: Earth Day.
Act One: Teach-In
It’s August 1969, eight months before the first Earth Day.
Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson stretches his legs and looks out the window of a plane as it rises into the sky over Los Angeles. Just a few weeks have passed since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and America is still space crazy. But today, Nelson’s primary concern is much more terrestrial.
He peers down at the ocean far below. North of Los Angeles, off the coast near Santa Barbara, he can see globs of dark oil floating on the water. The Senator shakes his head.
It’s been six months since a disastrous spill released millions of gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean. Thick black tar has fouled the coast for miles around and devastated marine life in the area; thousands of birds were killed, along with hundreds of seals, dolphins, and sea lions.
The oil spill shocked the country, but in Senator Nelson’s opinion, still, not enough is being done to prevent something like this from happening again.
Nelson grew up in rural Wisconsin. He spent his childhood playing on the beautiful, wooded shores of a lake. This "magically mysterious" landscape, as he called it, would leave its mark. Nelson grew up and eventually went into politics, taking a passion for environmental causes with him. In 1959, he became Governor of Wisconsin. And after serving two terms, he was elected to the US Senate. With his new role, Nelson hoped to thrust environmental issues into the national spotlight. So the senator introduced legislation to clean up the Great Lakes and ban environmentally harmful chemicals like DDT. But he found few allies in Washington.
Now, looking down from his plane on the devastation caused by the Santa Barbara oil spill, Nelson knows he’s not done enough. Frustrated, he looks away and reaches under the seat in front for his briefcase. He’s brought a magazine with him to read on the short flight north to San Francisco.
But as he flicks through the pages, he comes to an article that catches his eye. It’s about the so-called ‘Teach-ins’ taking place on college campuses. These are debates led by professors aimed at raising awareness about the anti-war movement fighting American involvement in Vietnam.
And as the Senator reads, an idea begins to form in his mind. He wonders if there’s a way to harness the energy of anti-war activists for another cause as well. ‘Teach-Ins’ - but for the environment.
Immediately upon his plane landing, Nelson gets to work quickly to put his plan into action. But he doesn’t want the new movement to be a partisan venture. He wants these Teach-Ins to go beyond the boundaries of political parties and have as broad an appeal as possible. So, Democrat Nelson asks a Republican, Congressman Pete McCloskey, to join him as the initiative’s co-chair.
Over the autumn, Nelson makes several speeches to drum up publicity. One is picked up on the front page of the New York Times. And soon, word begins to spread and the Senator’s office is fielding calls from all across the country, including one from a graduate student at Harvard University named Denis Hayes.
In December 1969, Senator Nelson and Denis Hayes sit down to talk in Washington DC.
The 25-year-old Hayes has an interest in wildlife and conservation. He’s heard about Nelson’s environmental efforts and he wants to help.
The meeting between the Wisconsin Senator and the student is scheduled to last just ten minutes, but two hours later, the two men are still talking. By the time Hayes finally leaves Nelson’s office, he’s agreed to become Boston’s regional coordinator for the Environmental Teach-In.
But even with Hayes’ help, Senator Nelson’s staff is struggling to cope with the growing demands of the initiative. Organizing the Environmental Teach-In is just too much work on top of their usual duties. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before; there’s no national environmental movement to tap into; just fragmented local campaigns. The Teach-In needs a dedicated team. So, in late 1969, Nelson creates a non-profit organization called Environmental Teach-In Inc. And the Senator knows just the young man he wants to lead it.
In early 1970, Denis Hayes will drop out of Harvard to become the new organization’s national coordinator. He will assemble a team of idealistic young activists. And together, they will unleash a new mass movement that will forever transform America’s relationship with the environment.
Act Two: Earth Day
It’s early 1970, four months before Earth Day.
At a cramped office in Washington DC, the staff of Environmental Teach-In Inc perch on desks, as their young director Denis Hayes passes out beer and slices of pizza.
There is a buzz of energy in the room. The oldest staff member here is just 28. And like Hayes himself, they’ve all been plucked from universities and Washington think tanks to help make Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson’s dream a reality.
But Hayes has a problem. The name: ‘Environmental Teach-In’.
To Hayes, it sounds too narrow, too academic, too... boring. It’s action they’re calling for, not debate. They need a better name.
Luckily, they’ve got some expert help. A few days earlier, the office received an unexpected phone call from Julian Koenig, a star ad man from New York. Koenig has redefined advertising, coming up with famous campaigns for Volkswagen cars, Timex watches, and many other signature brands. But now, he wants to help the Environmental Teach-In. Denis Hayes explained their problem to the famous ad man. And just a few days later, Koenig sent over some ideas.
So today, Hayes calls for quiet in the office as he shows the team Koenig’s mock-ups. The ad man has come up with several possible names: Ecology Day, Environment Day, E-Day, and lastly… Earth Day. That last one is Koenig’s favorite. Hayes and his team quickly come to the same conclusion.
So, on January 18th, 1970, a full-page ad appears in the New York Times. In bold letters, it announces that April 22nd will be Earth Day. The stark text goes on, stating:
‘A disease has infected our country. It has brought smog to Yosemite, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food, and left our cities in decay. Its carrier is man.’
The ad further makes calls on communities across America to get involved in Earth Day. To donate, to volunteer, and to act.
The ad costs almost half Hayes’ budget. But it’s worth it. They quickly make the money back – and more – in donations. Other newspapers start running the ad free of charge. And over the next three months, the momentum behind Earth Day grows. It captures the public imagination like no environmental effort has before.
And when that day finally arrives, on April 22nd. 1970, tens of millions of Americans join protests and Teach-Ins across the country. But the organizers of Earth Day are determined to build on their success. Hayes and his team have helped create a new network of activists; a grassroots environmental movement. And they know that one day won’t be enough to effect real change. To save the environment, they have to have new laws. And to have new laws, they need new politicians.
Hayes and his team spend months drawing up a list of Congressmen to target – politicians with poor environmental records who face tight reelection races in districts with a major ecological issue that voters care about. They dub these anti-environment politicians the ‘Dirty Dozen’.
And thanks to Earth Day, Hayes and his team now have thousands of newly energized activists ready to campaign. Hayes unleashes them on the Dirty Dozen right up until election day.
And late at night on November 3rd, 1970, seven months after the first Earth Day, Denis Hayes and his team members gather around a television set in their Washington office, watching the results of the US midterm elections. Hayes joins the chorus of cheers from his colleagues as yet another anti-environment politician loses.
To Hayes’ delight, seven of the Dirty Dozen are not reelected to their seats in Congress. Hayes is happy. It's proof that Earth Day is not some passing fad and that environmental issues have real power to swing elections.
This reality puts pressure on other politicians to change their ways. The following month, Congress authorizes the formulation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, or the EPA. Over the next five years, a wave of other legislation follows, including an amended Clean Air Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
But Hayes and his team don’t stop campaigning. They target other politicians who stand in the way of change, unseating another ‘Dirty Dozen’ in Congress in 1972 and 1974.
Meanwhile, Earth Day will become an annual occurrence. Over the decades, it will spread around the world, bringing together activists from different countries and inspiring new generations to join the fight for the planet’s survival.
Act Three: Paris Agreement
It’s April 22nd, 2016; forty-six years since the first Earth Day.
At the UN General Assembly Hall in New York, US Secretary of State John Kerry walks onto the stage. There’s a ripple of laughter and applause in the hall as delegates see he’s carrying a little girl - his two-year-old granddaughter Isabelle.
On a desk at the front of the podium, a new international treaty awaits Kerry’s signature: the Paris Climate Accords.
The Agreement was made in 2015 at a major conference in the French capital. 196 countries came together to negotiate a groundbreaking deal to cut emissions of greenhouse gasses, and to invest in ways of mitigating the damage of climate change.
After the Paris Accords were agreed to, a special date was chosen for countries to sign the treaty. April 22nd, Earth Day.
At the UN Headquarters in New York, John Kerry sits down at the desk, hoists his granddaughter onto his knee, and signs the agreement on behalf of the United States of America.
Kerry then stands and plants a kiss on his granddaughter’s cheek. For the Secretary of State, the symbolism is clear - it’s her future on the planet the agreement is meant to protect.
That same day, 173 other countries join America in signing the Paris Accords. And although the United States will briefly withdraw from the agreement, America will rejoin the global effort to combat climate change on January 20th, 2021.
The work to save the planet is, perhaps, more urgent now than ever. A recent April 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that the promises made in the Paris Accords have not been fulfilled and that rapid action is needed now to avoid catastrophe.
But if the battle against climate change is to be won, it will be in no small part, thanks to Senator Nelson of Wisconsin, his acolyte Denis Hayes, and the thousands of others who launched the Earth Day movement that began 52 years ago, on April 22nd, 1970.
Next on History Daily.April 25th, 1915. During WW1, Australian and New Zealand soldiers land on the Gallipoli Peninsula for a heroic military campaign that will lead to the creation of ANZAC day.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.