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In the fall of 1969, 24-year-old Tom Smith roared into Madison from San Francisco on his Norton Atlas motorcycle, his head full of ecological ideals.

He found he had traded one activist city for another and wasted no time getting involved. Before long, he found himself the Madison coordinator of something being billed as “Earth Day.” The event, proposed mostly as a teach-in on environmental issues by Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, was scheduled for April of 1970.

Had Smith been able to peer into the future, he would have seen a world changed by what that teach-in would become.

As planning got under way in the fall of 1969 for that first Earth Day, the environment was low on the list of subjects that politicians cared about. But it soon became apparent to Smith that there was disconnect between politicians and people on the environment.

After April 22, 1970, it was an issue that became impossible to ignore. The 1970s saw groundbreaking legislation, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. And today, in the buzzword “sustainability,” one can hear echoes of the chanting crowds that gathered on that spring day.

“The demonstration marked more than a national holiday for the Earth,” Nelson would write later. “It was about the people sending a message and setting an agenda. It was about sparking a landmark grass-roots movement.”

Coming together

Last week, sitting at a picnic table under a warm sun in his backyard on Madison’s West Side, Smith recalled the weeks and months leading up to the first Earth Day.

To him, one of the most remarkable things was the way so many people from different walks of life came together for one cause. It’s a stark contrast to today, when the nation’s politics are as fractured and divisive as they’ve ever been, he said.

“The fact that we could get members of rural rod and gun clubs, of sportsmen’s clubs, to sit down in the same room with members of Students for a Democratic Society, that was something,” Smith said. “And politicians, I mean even the most conservative politicians, were saying they were against crime, taxes and pollution.”

In no time at all, Smith remembered, the teach-in he was helping organize during that fall semester became something much more.

“It really was a grass-roots event,” Smith said. “There were so many community groups involved. Pretty much every single civic organization was doing something.”

Understanding the first Earth Day, said professor William Cronon, who studies American environmental history at UW-Madison, requires understanding that change — radical change — was in the air. Rallies and marches. Clouds of tear gas rolling in Madison’s streets. Vietnam. The civil rights movement.

“There was a recognition that all these things fit together,” said Smith.

Politicians, whether Democratic or Republican, found it hard to ignore the mandate from the streets, Cronon said. In the wake of that day, through the rest of the decade, came a wave of landmark environmental laws, from the Clean Air Act to the Endangered Species Act.

Nelson’s daughter, Tia Nelson, who has carried on her father’s environmental crusade, recalled that in 1966, he introduced legislation in Washington to ban the pesticide DDT. He was not able to enlist a single co-sponsor in the Senate. But in 1970, post-Earth Day, the legislation sailed through, she said. Richard Nixon would champion much of the environmental legislation of the ’70s.

Earth Day evolution continues

Many of those who work on behalf of the environment say that evolution of our environmental consciousness has continued.

Today, said Brett Hulsey, a Madison environmental consultant, the ideals espoused in the streets on the first Earth Day are as likely to be heard in corporate boardrooms. And universities, including UW-Madison and Edgewood College, are now offering degrees in sustainability.

Hulsey has spent his share of time confronting corporations, but a couple of years ago he left the Sierra Club to start his own business, Better Environmental Solutions. He now works with corporations he may have protested against 10 years ago.

“Environmentalism has become mainstream,” said Hulsey. “And for companies, it has become bottom line. ... The big challenge for environmentalists is changing their way of thinking. Yes, we have to change the world. OK, how do we change the world?”

Smith, too, said he has become more practical. And he said he believes the idea of sustainability in individual and corporate life speaks to one of the core ideals of that first Earth Day.

Still, he said, when he thinks back, he wonders whether he would trade practical for the fire that burned that day, the feeling that ideas were coming to life and changing the world. Every year about this time, he said, he pulls out his copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and reads Thompson’s famous eulogy for that time.

“We had all the momentum,” Thompson wrote. “We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.”

[Editor's note: Two photos that ran with this story were originally attributed incorrectly. The photos were shot by Michael Sievers, a member of the committee that organized the first Earth Day 40 years ago.]

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