ZWEIFEL COLUMN: Now more than ever, we need to spread the message of Nelson's Earth Day
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ZWEIFEL COLUMN: Now more than ever, we need to spread the message of Nelson's Earth Day

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During his long tenure at CBS, Walter Cronkite was regarded by millions as the most trusted man in America.

But I remember one comment he made as America’s long nightmare in Vietnam was finally coming to an end.

He and another commentator were discussing what would be the next big issue in the country that could galvanize tens of thousands of young Americans to rally around it. Someone suggested that it would be the environment.

Yes, he replied, noting the enthusiasm on college campuses and elsewhere that had already been bubbling up thanks to Earth Day events inspired by Wisconsin’s U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, which Cronkite’s news show covered extensively.

But, who would oppose protecting the environment?, he wondered aloud.

Well, as we know now, quite a few would, including a former Wisconsin governor and his allies in the Legislature and, just for kicks, the president of the United States, many of the nation’s leading corporations and most everyone else who worries that environmental protections might cost them a buck.

Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of that first Earth Day. It was on April 22, 1970, that college campuses around the country, national conservation and environmental organizations and just plain ordinary citizens staged events ranging from teach-ins to festivals, from river and lake clean-up parties to hikes through nature. The number of people taking part was estimated to be in the millions.

Here in Madison, a massive march up State Street, including hundreds of UW students and hundreds more from throughout the community, ended with speeches on the Capitol Square urging lawmakers to pass anti-pollution regulations and businesses and corporations and, yes, individuals, to consider the environment when making decisions.

In fact, Madison’s Earth Day was extended to a week of events, starting on Earth Day itself with a sunrise “Earth Service” at Picnic Point. The following days were devoted to an environmental art show, a film festival, dozens of workshops such as “Food Additives and Cancer,” and even one that focused on “Pollution Induced Climate Change” — yes, 50 years ago.

Nelson himself wasn’t in Madison that first Earth Day. He had spoken here the night before and on April 22 was in Denver, where he delivered a memorable speech declaring that we needed to consider the entire environment — one that not only respected the natural Earth, but also the effects of poverty, hunger and blight.

A feature in this month’s Smithsonian magazine, itself 50 years old this April, described an event at the University of Michigan where Nelson spoke in March at the behest of the university’s president, Robben Fleming, a former UW chancellor. The focus was on the automobile, and the pollution and environmental dangers resulting from America’s love affair with it.

None other than Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, was there, calling on the auto giants to build more environmentally friendly cars and throwing the weight of his union behind Nelson’s movement.

What a pity that the administration of Donald Trump, with the enthusiastic endorsement of many of the nation’s leading corporations, has not only repealed some 90-plus environmental regulations in just three years, but rolled back mileage and emission rules some 50 years later.

Here in Wisconsin, we’ve come through a period that has also seen environmental rollbacks in the state that began the movement to safeguard the only planet we have. Department of Natural Resources scientists were sacked, mining and wetland rules were obliterated, air and water pollution regulations weakened. And we still have a Legislature that wants to do even more destruction. While those first Earth Day observances 50 years ago warned of climate change dangers, we’re led by politicians who dismiss it.

Because of another environmental danger, this one a health crisis because in part we let down our guard, we won’t be holding rallies and workshops like the ones of the past 49 years.

But, more than ever, we need to spread the message that Gaylord Nelson gave us 50 years ago — before it’s too late. 

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. He can be reached by email at dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.

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