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Lessons from the First Earth Day – 1970

10 Steps To Save The Place You Love

  • Realizing that Action is Necessary
  • Understanding the Major Threats
  • Identifying the Players
  • Understanding all the Perspectives
  • Creating a Campaign
  • Selecting a Goal
  • Building the Coalition
  • Selecting the Tactics
  • Perseverance
  • Helping Others

Ned Tillman on Twitter

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IMG_8768I had been asked to speak at the Gunpowder Conservancy’s Earth Day Event at the Oregon Ridge Nature Center outside of Baltimore, MD. When the onsite event was cancelled due to the States’s Stay-at-home recommendation, they asked for a short video to post on their virtual Earth Day site along with other content their followers might like to read. I sent them one. In the process of preparing those remarks, I reviewed my own experience back on the first Earth Day in 1970. I thought I would share some of my recollections with you here.

You might wonder why I think this is relevant today with most of our focus on Covid-19, dealing with closed schools, and trying to earn a paycheck. Well there are many parallels between the environmental/climate change challenges and this pandemic, and I believe a little historic perspective can be helpful.

Our country was also in turmoil in 1970. We had gone through several years of political assassinations, a crooked President, the cities were on fire, and anti-war protests were widespread. A few weeks after the first Earth Day, 4 students were shot dead on Kent State University in Ohio. We all went crazy in disbelief that this could happen in the US. Colleges all across America were shut down, students sent home and classes cancelled. Does that sound familiar?

The other parallel is that diseases like this coronavirus may be directly related with degradation of the environment, loss of habitat, increased density of humans smothering out other life forms, and the lost of biodiversity and gene pools. That’s right, diseases like Covid-19 are the direct result of humans trashing our environment – which is the primary reason Earth Day was created in the first place and why it is as important today as ever before.

img_8193I remember Earth Day 1970. I was a junior in college studying earth and environmental processes. It was a milestone in my life – an opportunity to see many of the interconnections between history, science, politics, business, and health. As a result of that first teach-in, I dedicated my life to trying to keep mankind in balance with our natural support systems.

April 22, 1970 is considered the birth of the modern environmental movement. Earlier movements occurred in the 1800s and early 1900s when Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Wesley Powell, John Muir all lobbied for a greater focus on nature (see Saving The Places We Love for more detail). They moved the national consciousness from one which was totally exploitative to one that dealt with the preservation of some of the great wonders of America and the conservation of our valuable natural resources.

Their efforts led to the preserving of 100s of millions of acres by Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchott. Later FDR through the CCC planted 3 billion trees on lands that had been stripped bare by loggers, ranchers, and fires sparked by trains. These ancestors left a beautiful legacy for us and all future generations – assuming we take up the mantle and continue the efforts to preserve what is best of America.

In 1970, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson got April 22 dedicated as Earth Day – a day for a national teach-in to educate all of us to the damages we were causing to our environment and to our health. He had been motivated by seeing the ravages of the massive Santa Barbara Oil spill the previous year. He realized that if he could infuse the energy of the anti-war protest with the emerging public awareness about water and air pollution, it could force environmental protection onto the national agenda.

Earth Day celebrations and teach-ins occurred on 2000 college campuses, 10,000 secondary schools, and thousands of communities across the country. It is estimated that 20 million people participated in non-violent demonstrations and teach-ins.

I remember participating on my college campus (Franklin and Marshall College). It was a beautiful day with music and banners. We had local speakers and booths. It was fun but also very visceral to look at pictures of the mess we were causing to our streams, forests, oceans, soils, and communities. I came away thinking that it was up to our generation to save the Earth.

climate man people street

Photo by Markus Spiske on

Fortunately, the movement was supported by both Republicans and Democrats, by young and old. That teach-in led to the creation of the EPA and passage of Clean Air, Clean Water, and the Endangered Species Acts. The steps lead to the legal framework that has allowed us to accomplish a great deal over the past 50 years.

It was a great start. We have cleaned up a lot of the country, and changed many personal and corporate behaviors. But the population, unfortunately, has doubled over my life time and we all use a lot more energy and consume much more today than we ever did back then. All the gains we have made are threatened by our wasteful behaviors and our near total dependence on fossil fuel and plastics. As a result our way of life is threatened and our climate is changing. We have to find a way back from the brink of more pandemics, fires, droughts, and storms.

So we need to:

  • rekindle our efforts to live in balance with what remains of our natural support systems
  • create a multi-generational, multi-ethnic and bipartisan strategy for a healthy and sustainable future.

So on this coming Wednesday, April 22, the 50th Anniversary of the First Earth Day, I invite you to get engaged at a local, national, and global level. You can do this by supporting and participating with your local nature centers, climate action groups, land conservancies, governments, churches, and environmental groups. On a national scale there are many groups to support, but be sure to check in with or to learn more about this year’s actions, such as:

  1. Great Global Clean-up
  2. Planting of 7.8 billion trees (1 for each person on the planet)
  3. Advocacy at all levels
  4. Global Teach-Ins – to increase climate literacy – join the 3-day live stream at
  5. Wider participation of all people with all our talents

Now take a moment to think about what we are learning from our response to the current global challenge – Covid-19. What have you learned that will help us be more effective when dealing with the climate crisis. Just remember we don’t want to go backwards. We want to act now to make sure we can go forward to a healthier and more sustainable future. But we have to act now, find our focus, and spend the stimulus monies in constructive ways for a new economy. Join what we think will be 1 billion people on Earth Day 50 and let’s get moving forward, together.



  1. Susanne Fox says:

    1970 – that was the year that I moved to Columbia with my family, the Ronald Brelsfords.. We had been to Europe spending the previous three years in lower Bavaria near Nuremburg. It was a new beginning for us. Now our children, Heidi and Jon, have families of their own in MI and Pittsburgh. Their dad is still in Columbia. Our 1970 Earth Day thoughts were on saving the Patuxent River Valley under the leadership of Al Geis. My last job in the world of work was as a canvasser with Clean Water Action – for four + years. We were waiting for you to arrive later, Ned. Thank you for your leader ship and this walk down memory lane. It’s hard to think about the state of the environment and know what’s the best path to take.
    One Day At A Time AND VOTE!

    Liked by 1 person

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To inspire each of us to take action toward saving the natural places we love.
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