The first Earth Day was the idea of a U.S. senator, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, and that still amazes me. My amazement is not just that an establishment figure sparked the greatest demonstration in American history. Earth Day 1970 succeeded because Nelson had a rare understanding of political leadership.
Nelson wasn’t a buck-stops-here or I’m-the-decider kind of leader. He also wasn’t a back-room dealmaker. Instead, he found a way to empower people at the grassroots. In September 1969, he vowed to organize “a nationwide teach-in on the environment” in spring 1970, and his call to action inspired more than 12,000 Earth Day celebrations on college campuses, in K-12 schools, and at community venues. Millions of Americans took part.
Nelson’s teach-in was much more than a powerful demonstration of support for the environmental cause. Earth Day gave birth to the first green generation. Even Nelson did not expect that. But Nelson deserves much of the credit for the unexpected legacies of Earth Day.
Though politicians typically want marquee billing, Nelson concluded that the teach-in should not be a Nelson-fest. He rejected advice that he oversee everything. He did not handpick the local organizers or determine the format for events or insist that the teach-in promote a specific agenda. Instead, Nelson gave Earth Day organizers autonomy. That critical decision allowed Earth Day to engage the creativity of tens of thousands of people.
The organizational effort was superb leadership training. Earth Day organizers were more like small-business owners than franchise managers. They did not just implement a business plan devised by higher-ups: They were responsible for every decision, and the breadth of their responsibility ensured that they were tested in many ways. For many Earth Day organizers, the months of planning were life-changing. “After we tasted success with this, we were really empowered,” one high-school organizer told me. “That’s a lesson that stayed with many of us throughout our lives, that we didn’t just have to throw up our hands in despair, we could do something!”
Because Earth Day was both inspiring and empowering, many local organizers decided to devote their lives to environmental issues. They helped to build a lasting eco-infrastructure. Some founded lobbying groups or environmental studies programs or community ecology centers. Many joined new environmental agencies or fast-growing environmental non-profits. Others developed environmental specialties in the professions, from architecture to law.
Nelson always spoke modestly about Earth Day. Earth Day organized itself, he liked to say, and he meant that Earth Day made history because people took the initiative at the grassroots. But the local organizers never would have become involved if Nelson had not promoted the teach-in. Nelson led by enabling other people to become leaders.
Can a politician today follow Nelson’s example? For a time, I thought Barack Obama had found a new way to use political office to empower ordinary citizens. He made empowerment a major theme of his first presidential campaign: “We are the change that we seek,” he proclaimed. But the presidency is a unique office, and I’m not surprised that President Obama has struggled to be the community-organizer-in-chief.
Despite that disappointment, I still believe that politicians can learn much from Nelson’s success. Neither top-down politics nor disorganized grassroots movements can solve our most challenging problems. But, as the first Earth Day demonstrated, politicians who use their power to nurture the creativity and commitment of citizens truly can change the world.
Adam Rome is the author of The Genius of Earth Day. He teaches environmental history and environmental non-fiction at the University of Delaware.