Origins of Earth Day, environmental movement come to life on Web site

January 28, 2010 By Tom Sinclair

People around the globe will mark the 40th anniversary of Earth Day (April 22) this spring. Countless activities related to Earth Day also will take place before and after April 22.

How did this unique annual observance come to pass? How did it change the course of political life across the country and around the world? Why does it continue to resonate with so many people?

A new Web site, “Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement,” tells the story of Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson and how his idea, conceived as a “national teach-in on the environment,” became a historic turning point.

The site, at http://www.nelsonearthday.net, contains more than 200 Web pages with more than 500 original documents, images, quotes, video clips and audio media from Nelson’s three terms as a U.S. senator from Wisconsin and his subsequent work as counselor of the Wilderness Society.

Links from primary pages take the reader to original documents that can be viewed online or printed. An index to the site’s material and links to more online resources are available by clicking on “Browse the Nelson Collection.” The documents are from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s extensive collection of Gaylord Nelson papers donated by the former senator 20 years ago.

“‘Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day’ is a remarkable resource for teachers, students, scholars, and citizens wanting to learn more about the values, people, ideas and social movements that have come to shape the changing landscape of American environmentalism,” says Gregg Mitman, interim director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The Web site is a cooperative venture of the Nelson Institute, the Wisconsin Historical Society, which houses a large collection of archival materials from Nelson’s career, and the Nelson family.

“Gaylord Nelson is today best remembered as the father of Earth Day, but his political career offers a wider and more revealing window on the transformation of American environmental politics during the middle decades of the 20th century,” says UW–Madison environmental historian William Cronon. “Anyone interested in Nelson or the history of environmentalism will want to explore this site, which also offers a treasure trove of online documents as a model for how archival materials can be made more widely available over the Web.”

The historical society also plans two special exhibits beginning in March — one about Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day, at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in downtown Madison, the other about Gaylord Nelson’s life and career — at the society’s headquarters at UW–Madison.

The Nelson Institute will mark the anniversary with a public conference, “Earth Day at 40: Valuing Wisconsin’s Environmental Traditions, Past, Present and Future,” Tuesday-Wednesday, April 20-21, at Madison’s Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. Confirmed speakers include environmental advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., author Margaret Atwood and Wilderness Society president William Meadows.

For further details about the Web site, visit http://www.nelsonearthday.net/about. For information about the historical exhibits and April conference, visit http://www.nelsonearthday.net/exhibits.