Gaylord Nelson's lasting legacy | WisCommunity

Gaylord Nelson's lasting legacy

It's Earth Day, the 42nd observance of the day designated by Wisconsin's Gaylord Nelson in 1970 as a day to recognize, review, and restate our obligation and commitment as custodians of the planet we inhabit.

Over the years, Earth Day has become institutionalized.  Part of the genius of it is that it took root in the schools, where millions of students at all levels learn about and are sensitized to environmental issues during Earth Week.

It has become an international event.  More than 1 billion people participate in Earth Day activities, making it the largest secular civic event in the world, according to the Earth Day Network

That’s part of Gaylord Nelson’s legacy.

But the most important, lasting thing is what Aldo Leopold called a land ethic, and what Gaylord Nelson called an environmental ethic.

“We need a generation imbued with an environmental ethic,” Nelson said repeatedly over the years, “which causes society to always ask the question: ‘If we intrude on this work of nature, what will the consequences be?’” Such an ethic would recognize “the bonds that unite the species man with the natural systems of the planet” and would affirm humans’ stewardship role on the planet, he said.

The message and goal had not changed in the half-century since Aldo Leopold wrote, in A Sand County Almanac, of the need for what he called a land ethic. “A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land,” Leopold wrote. The land ethic “changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to a plain member and citizen of it.’ That, in a few sentences, was what the environmental movement was all about. Nelson’s environmentalism was a direct descendant of Leopold’s conservation.

“A new environmental ethic is evolving,” Nelson said twenty-five years after the first Earth Day.  Grade school students in the 1990s asked better questions on environmental issues than college students did in 1970, Nelson said, because they had been exposed to the issues while growing up.  In his visits to grade schools in the 1990s, he found that nearly every pupil knew about the issue of dolphin-safe tuna. He told of one young girl in Florida who proudly told him that when her mother had come home with a can of tuna that did not have a “dolphin-safe” symbol, she made her mother drive back to the grocery store and exchange it.

“This is the evolution of an ethic,” he said. It is due in large part to Earth Day, Earth Week, and the ongoing environmental education the movement spawned in the nation’s classrooms. “That’s the heart of the matter,” he said.
Because of Nelson and Earth Day, several generations of young people have grown up with an understanding and awareness of the environment intilled into them.  That is his greatest legacy.

Nurturing the new post-Earth Day ethic were environmental reporters, publications, lawyers, and environmental institutes at most major universities – all virtually non-existent before Earth Day.  “After Earth Day,” one environmental history said, “nothing was the same.” Environmental activism generated by Earth Day “profoundly affected the nation’s laws, its economy, its corporations, its farms, its politics, science, education, religion and journalism . . .  Most important, the social forces unleashed after Earth Day changed, probably forever, the way Americans think about the environment.”

Not bad for a guy from Clear Lake, Wisconsin.

Happy Earth Day. 

(Bill Christofferson is the author of a political biography of Gaylord Nelson, "The Man From Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Sen. Gaylord Nelson," published by the University of Wisconsin Press.)


April 22, 2011 - 11:39am