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Earth Day: Then and Now

Public awareness of environment has helped to combat pollution

Apr. 14, 2010
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Think back to what our environment was like 40 or so years ago. Air pollution was a given. Nonsmoking areas were virtually nonexistent. Chemicals were routinely dumped in our waterways without a thought about their impact. Littering was accepted.

But while the majority accepted pollution as a fact of life back in the 1960s, a growing minority realized that nature must be preserved before it’s too late.

That awareness was harnessed by Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin), who launched Earth Day on April 22, 1970, a day set aside to learn more about how to save the Earth from human excess.

Now, 40 years later, Earth Day is an institution celebrated globally. But perhaps more importantly, many of Nelson’s concerns have been incorporated into environmental regulations, school curricula, business practices and everyday habits.

Bill Christofferson, who wrote the Nelson biography The Man From Clear Lake, said Nelson’s legacy permeates the culture beyond the one-day celebration of Earth Day.

“I think Gaylord’s legacy really is this environmental ethic we have now that a couple of generations have grown up with,” Christofferson said.

Forty Years Ago

That environmental ethic was just emerging when Nelson made conservation and preservation of natural resources a priority during his time as Wisconsin governor and senator.

Back in the 1960s, American industry was creating air, soil and water pollution that wasn’t being addressed by Washington or businesses.

But Nelson, who spoke around the country about the importance of protecting the environment, found that individuals knew that pollution was creating havoc in their communities.

“Everywhere he went there was an awareness of environmental problems,” Christofferson said. “The kinds of things that people would talk about were largely local issues. For example, the landfill was leeching into the groundwater or detergents were running into the lakes, which were blooming with algae. The birds were dying from DDT. Everybody could see some evidence that there were environmental problems that needed to be dealt with.”

In Milwaukee during the late ’60s, the river “smelled bad,” said real estate developer Julilly Kohler, then working in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office.

“It was bad enough that you didn’t want to touch it,” Kohler said. “No one could eat the fish. You really didn’t want to use it for any kind of recreation.”

Even small towns had environmental problems. Christofferson, who grew up in Eau Claire during the 1950s, said the air and the rivers that ran through its downtown were full of toxins from businesses.

“Some days there would be foam 6 or 8 feet high covering the river,” Christofferson said. “Nobody thought anything of it. They thought it was normal. I remember what the air was like sometimes from the paper mills. It was just incredible. You could hardly breathe sometimes, depending on what part of town you were in. It was just a fact of life.”

Trying to combat environmental pollution by living a healthy lifestyle was difficult. Pam Mehnert, general manager of the Outpost Natural Foods Co-op, which is also celebrating its 40th anniversary this month, said it was nearly impossible to find chemical-free, health food staples like granola, grains, tofu and beans for sale anywhere but the co-op.

“You couldn’t find these products in a regular grocery store,” Mehnert said.

In fact, Outpost members would drive down to Chicago to pick up organic food flown in from California, since it wasn’t otherwise distributed in Milwaukee.  

“There was some awareness because of Vietnam and chemical warfare that chemicals were making people sick,” Mehnert said.

Attorney Dennis Grzezinski, senior staff counsel for Midwest Environmental Advocates, said that even environmental crises—such as the polluted Cuyahoga River starting on fire in 1969—grabbed the public’s attention for a short time only.

“For so many folks the problems had gone on one way or another throughout their entire lives and they didn’t know anything better,” Grzezinski said.

A Global Phenomenon

According to Christofferson, Nelson decided that the public and policy-makers needed to become more aware of the nation’s growing environmental crisis. He modeled the first Earth Day on anti-war teach-ins held on college campuses. His announcement was mentioned in a small wire service story in the fall of 1969, and the reaction was huge.

“What he sensed was that this was one of those issues where the public was way out in front of politicians,” Christofferson said.

Just a few months later, on April 22, 1970, 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day.

Grzezinski, then a student at Princeton University, was one of them.

“I remember enjoying being outdoors, hearing speeches, passing out leaflets, and neighborhood cleanups being organized,” Grzezinski said.

That kind of activism helped to usher in what’s now known as this country’s environmental decade, when the Environmental Protection Agency was established and major legislation such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were passed and implemented.

What’s more, Earth Day has since become a global phenomenon, a day (or weekend) filled with local cleanup efforts, kids’ activities, parades, celebrations and lots of community spirit. [See page 8 for a list of local activities.]

Challenges Remain

Even though environmental awareness has come a long way in the past four decades, Kohler said the annual celebration of Earth Day is still necessary.

“It’s way too easy to become blasé about what we do every day,” Kohler said. “We absolutely need a time when we’re reminded that we all have one mother.”

In other words, we still face a host of environmental challenges.

Although Milwaukee’s rivers aren’t full of debris and industrial waste, new sources of pollution that are difficult if not impossible to filter—such as chemicals from personal care products and medication—are threatening our waterways and fish populations.

“We still aren’t taking care of the lake the way we should,” Kohler said of Lake Michigan.

Land-use issues and mass transit development are still unresolved in southeastern Wisconsin. And the state has invested heavily in coal-fired power plants that will be in use for decades to come, even though cleaner technologies are used widely elsewhere around the country. Plus, there are the small but important choices that individuals make every day about how they live their lives.

“There still remains a very serious disconnect for most everyone who is concerned about the environment but lives pretty much as they please,” Grzezinski said.

Earth Day Celebrations

Saturday, April 17

Great American Cleanup

Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful is organizing neighborhood cleanups throughout the city. Go to www.kgmb.org for specific locations and times.

Thursday, April 22

Growing Power Open House

This open house features Growing Power’s new solar panel installation and storm-water collection system, tours, organic wine tasting from Bonterra, food samples from Chef DeShawn Parker and beverages from Rishi Tea. This event runs from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; RSVP at www.growingpower.org.

Sierra Club Celebration

Family fun can be had at the Coast Guard Pavilion on the lakefront. The Eco-Puppet Pageant starts the celebration, which includes performances and children’s art activities. The event is free and open to all from 5 to 7 p.m. For more information, go to www.greatwatersgroup.org.

Friday, April 23

23rd Annual Earth Poets and Musicians

Recent Milwaukee Poet Laureate Susan Firer joins Jahmes Tony Finlayson, Louisa Gallas, Holly Haebig, Jeff Poniewaz, Suzanne Rosenblatt and Harvey Taylor. The event includes interactive music and poetry for the whole family (7-8 p.m.) plus Earth Poets and Musicians (beginning at 8 p.m.). The event, which takes place at the Urban Ecology Center, is free for everyone, but donations are appreciated.

Saturday, April 24

Great American Cleanup

Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful is organizing neighborhood cleanups throughout the city. Go to www.kgmb.org for specific locations and times.

Earth Day for Afternoon Nappers

Hikes, crafts, stories and more for kids under 5 years old (with an adult) occur at the Urban Ecology Center from 10:30 a.m. to noon. Call 964-8505 to register before April 23.

River Cleanup By Canoe

Milwaukee Riverkeepers’ annual Spring River Cleanup utilizes canoes to get to sections of the river and riverbank that are hard to clean up from the shore. This event takes place from 9 a.m.-noon. Participants will meet at the Milwaukee Rowing Club Boathouse, 1990 N. Commerce St. Call 964-8505 to register.

Earth Day Festivals

Urban Ecology Center’s two locations (in Riverside Park and Washington Park) will host free events with music, crafts, park improvement projects and more from noon to 4 p.m. For more information, go to www.urbanecologycenter.org.

Spring NatureFest at Havenwoods State Forest

This festival features lots of fun outdoor activities for all ages, plus an Earth Day birthday cake. It takes place from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Call 527-0232 for more information about this free event.

Sunday, April 25

In Celebration of Trees

This family-friendly event at the Wehr Nature Center in Whitnall Park encourages a greater appreciation of trees and other living creatures. Trees are available for adoption—free. The event runs from noon to 4:30 p.m.

Ongoing Volunteer Opportunities

Check out the Volunteer Center of Greater Milwaukee at www.volunteermilwaukee.org for more ways you can contribute to making our environment cleaner and greener.


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