Earth Day turns 50

And some people still don't get it

Jim Lundstrom


Students march on the fi rst Earth Day in 1970. Photo: NYC Municipal Archives
Students march on the first Earth Day in 1970. Photo: NYC Municipal Archives

When arch-conservative groups such as the Appleton, Wis.-headquartered John Birch Society dismissed the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, as a communist plot because it fell on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, Earth Day founder Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson had a great rebuttal. He pointed out that millions share birthdays every day. In fact, he said, Lenin also shared his birthday with St. Francis of Assisi, Queen Isabella and, “most importantly, my Aunt Tillie.”

Hard to believe for anyone who was there at the first Earth Day, but April 22, 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of the day designated to think about the planet that bears us.   Gaylord Nelson’s dedicated effort to turn our collective attention to the environment is a legacy in good hands with his daughter, Tia Nelson, who was just a few months short of her 14th birthday on the first Earth Day.


Tia Nelson
Tia Nelson

“Earth Day was successful beyond my father’s wildest dreams,” Nelson said in a recent telephone interview. “Twenty million people gathered that day. It launched the environmental decade, in which more environmental laws were passed than any other time in history. A Republican president created the Environmental Protection Agency. The Clean Air Act was passed. The Clean Water Act was passed. The first green generation was born.”  


Nelson is managing director for climate issues with an organization called Outrider that has two missions - ending the threat of nuclear war and reversing the course of global climate change. She also spent 17 years as a policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy, and then first director of the Global Climate Change Initiative. She returned home to Wisconsin in 2004 to serve as executive secretary to the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands and co-chaired Wisconsin’s Task Force on Global Warming.  

Nelson left the state position for her current work with Outrider in 2015, short months after a gag order was imposed on her and the board staff, banning them from talking about climate change issues. The board is made up of the three state constitutional officers, which at the time was made up of two Republicans State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk, Attorney General Brad Schimel and Democratic Secretary of State Doug LaFollette. Adamczyk, who was voted out of office in 2018, said at the time of the gag order that climate change and its source is still debatable. The gag order for the board staff was just lifted last year, after the two Republicans lost their jobs and were replaced by Democrats.


Tia and her father, Sen. Gaylord Nelson, in 1968. Before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1963, Nelson served two terms as Wisconsin’s governor, only the second Democrat to hold the job in the 20th century and the fi rst from northern Wisconsin.
Tia and her father, Sen. Gaylord Nelson, in 1968. Before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1963, Nelson served two terms as Wisconsin’s governor, only the second Democrat to hold the job in the 20th century and the first from northern Wisconsin.

That dismissive attitude to science would have upset her father, Nelson said, adding that if he were still here (he died July 3, 2005), “he would be most concerned about the politicization of science,” she said. “To make sound public policy we need sound science and strong leaders. I think that would concern him.”

But, she adds, “This is a journey, not a destination. As long as humankind is seeking a fine balance in sustainability on a finite planet we will have to rise to the rise to the challenge. And it will take a long and enduring effort to maintain a sustainable future.”  

Recognizing that this is her leg of the journey, Nelson is unveiling a film this Earth Day – When the Earth Moves – that pays tribute to her father as the founder, but also gives hope that others are going to continue this journey.

“I wanted our film to not be simply a reflection of the past,” she said. “I wanted to use that story as a source of inspiration for people today to see the power of individual actions.”  

The short film features two people who might be seen as politically polar opposites - former South Carolina Congressman and RepublicEn founder Bob Inglis, and youth activist and Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash. But they in fact are in agreement about climate change and perfectly illustrate Nelson’s idea for Earth Day.  

“I thought Varshini Prakash and Bob Inglis wert the perfect people to bring voice to my father’s original vision for a multigenerational, bipartisan, socially just environmental movement,”Nelson said. “Varshini is an advocate of the Green New Deal. Bob is founder of RepublicEn, a conservative Republican organization. He’s dedicated his life to climate change action. They have different perspectives on the appropriate policy responses to the challenge, but they are united in their sense of urgency to address climate change, the greatest environmental challenge of our time.

“We were able to show the diversity of voices, generations and political affiliations, united in seeing this as an enormous challenge and an enormous opportunity to help us forge a more sustainable future,” Nelson continued. “I was so grateful and delighted they joined me in helping tell my father’s story and make it contemporary and even relevant on the 50th anniversary.”

When the Earth Moves premiered virtually at the EarthX Film Festival ( on April 22 and the Smithsonian Earth Optimism Summit ( on April 25 and will then immediately be available on YouTube and at

Cartoonist Walt Kelly’s famous 1970 Earth Day commentary.
Cartoonist Walt Kelly’s famous 1970 Earth Day commentary.