How a Wisconsin Senator Helped Establish Earth Day 50 Years Ago

“Our goal is a decent environment in its broadest and deepest sense.”

On the eve of the first Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson delivered an enduringly powerful speech in Milwaukee that still resonates 50 years later.

The U.S. Senator from Wisconsin and former governor forged the environmentally focused event, in which a mind-boggling 20 million people took part that first year through thousands of marches, rallies and other gatherings across the country.

On April 21, 1970, Nelson spoke at a United Auto Workers’ convention in Atlantic City, the floor of the Massachusetts Legislature and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before concluding the whirlwind with an appearance that night at Cooley Auditorium at what was then known as Milwaukee Technical College.

In a speech filled with memorable quotes, one still stands out for Nelson’s daughter, Tia, who spent part of the first Earth Day picking up trash with her junior high school classmates in Maryland.

“Our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings and all other living creatures,” Gaylord Nelson told the Milwaukee audience. “Our goal is a decent environment in its broadest and deepest sense.”

The native of rural Clear Lake in northwestern Wisconsin would go on to exclaim that the effort would require “a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical and financial commitment, far beyond any other commitment ever made by any society in history.”

Tia Nelson; Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki

Tia Nelson recently came across the quote, among others, in a spiral notebook belonging to her father that she discovered in the Washington, D.C., residence where she has been caring for her 97-year-old mother, Carrie Lee.

“Fifty years ago, he was thinking about the environment from a social justice lens,” Nelson says. “I most certainly felt, in a deep way, that my father was a public servant, and he was working to make the world a better place.”

About a decade after the seminal Earth Day, Nelson began to grasp how significant the event would be to the legacy of her father, who died in 2005 at the age of 89.

“It wasn’t my father’s original intention. He had this simple idea of an environmental teach-in,” Nelson explains. “He was seeking to shake the Washington establishment out of its lethargy on environmental issues.”

The first Earth Day sparked bipartisan efforts that led to the adoption of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and a Republican president, Richard Nixon, signing legislation that created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Nelson says her father’s dedication to the environment left her with a heavy sense of duty to public service. Like him, she has been a tireless champion for environmental stewardship. She currently serves as a managing director of climate for Outrider Foundation, a Madison organization working to reduce the course of global climate change. She previously spent 17 years with The Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Virginia, before returning to Wisconsin.

Gaylord Nelson’s commitment to environmental issues and his vision for a multigenerational, bipartisan and socially just call to action are highlighted in a new short film “When the Earth Moves,” released for Earth Day 2020. Outrider Foundation and Generous Films of San Francisco produced the film.

Tia Nelson also appears in the film, along with climate crusaders Varshini Prakash, the 26-year-old co-founder of Sunrise Movement, and republicEN founder and former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis. 

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day has Nelson reflecting on the daunting environmental challenges that exist today.

“I’m in my own dance between hope and despair,” Nelson says. “I get my sense of hope from remembering that the first Earth Day was successful beyond my father’s wildest dreams, because of individual actions. We will be in a struggle to balance how to forge that sustainable society with a finite set of resources. That’s a journey, not a destination. It will go on forever.”

Nelson is emboldened by the actions taken by younger environmental activists, like Prakash and Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who are pushing to make addressing climate change a top priority.

“My father knew that the power was in the voice of the youth,” Nelson says. “That was the genius of Earth Day.”

Gaylord Nelson’s legacy lives on in many ways beyond the annual Earth Day celebration, including through the efforts and programs of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which bears his name.

The institute, formed in 1970, was renamed in Nelson’s honor in 2002.

Paul Robbins; Photo courtesy of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

“Gaylord Nelson is part of a Wisconsin tradition of thinking about the environment. That’s infectious,” says Paul Robbins, the institute’s dean. “He was a terrific influence and always tied social justice to the environment. The environmental movement hasn’t always been good at doing that. I think that is part of his legacy that we need to reignite.”

Robbins pointed to Nelson’s bipartisan efforts on behalf of the environment and a willingness to include, not alienate, the business community.

“He didn’t believe in destroying the economy or treating businesses as evil,” Robbins says. “But he reminded us: ‘The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.’”

After leaving the Senate in 1981, Nelson became chairman and then counselor of The Wilderness Society, a land conservation organization. His environmental devotion earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“My father was an honorable leader with a set of values and put forth a call to action that resonated,” Tia Nelson says.



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.