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Earth Day events honor birth of environmentalism

April 19, 2010 By Gwen Evans

For some of us it seems like just yesterday, but Earth Day turns 40 this year. The first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970. Some 20 million people participated in environmental teach-ins across the United States. The event’s founder, U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, took a page from the antiwar movement to educate people about the environment and to put the cause on the national agenda.

[photo] Nelson.

The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies is hosting “Earth Day at 40: Valuing Wisconsin’s Environmental Traditions, Past, Present and Future,” April 20–21.

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Someone to watch over Earth The UW’s legacy with environmental issues started in the 1860s when student John Muir embraced nature. It continues evolving on today’s campus, where classes meld filmmaking skills with community activism.

That first Earth Day was a huge success, and it became an annual worldwide event that is now observed in almost every country.

In recognition of the anniversary, UW–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (which is named for Gaylord Nelson), is hosting a conference, “Earth Day at 40: Valuing Wisconsin’s Environmental Traditions, Past, Present and Future.” The conference will revisit the popular movement that launched an era of environmental reform, survey a broad range of current environmental issues and envision a more sustainable future. This event is also part of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Nelson Institute.

The two-day conference at the Monona Terrace Convention Center, Tuesday–Wednesday, April 20–21, will bring some notables to Madison, including environmental advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., bestselling author Margaret Atwood, SC Johnson chair and CEO Fisk Johnson, Wilderness Society president William Meadows, environmental justice scholar Dorceta Taylor, “Planetwalker” John Francis and Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin.

Topics to be explored include sustaining healthy landscapes, food security, the energy challenge, Native American environmental perspectives, water resources and climate change.

The celebration also includes a free concert, “Ecotones: A Musical Ecology of Wisconsin,” featuring contemporary compositions by musicians from UW–Madison, at 8 p.m. on April 20, in Promenade Hall at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.

Award winners of the Climate Leadership Challenge, a yearlong UW–Madison student competition for ideas to reduce the impacts of climate change, will be announced on the second day of the conference. Prizes in the competition are valued at $100,000. The first beneficiaries of a new undergraduate scholarship program in environmental studies at UW–Madison also will be introduced.

The conference fees are very reasonable and people may attend either or both days; pre-registration and payment are due by Monday, April 12.

The Madison campus has also been home to other environmental visionaries. In addition to Nelson, bragging rights include John Muir (as a student), eloquent writer and father of the national park system; and Aldo Leopold (faculty member), who developed a land ethic and launched an area of studies known as wildlife ecology. All three were environmental advocates and visionaries and their influences extend from Wisconsin throughout the country.

The Wisconsin Historical Society, in partnership with the Nelson Institute, is hosting a special exhibit about Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day at the Wisconsin Historical Museum on the Capitol Square. A second exhibit about Gaylord Nelson’s life and career is on display at the society’s headquarters on Library Mall. The Nelson Institute and the Historical Society also have launched a Web site, “Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement.”.

Complete details on the conference and registration instructions are available at The Nelson Institute.