Gaylord Nelson
The late Gaylord Nelson, former Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator.

There are many ways in which to honor the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the national teach-in that transformed a broad but unfocused discourse about pollution into an urgent demand for government action to clean our air and our water, to protect our environment and to recognize the threats posed by an over-reliance on carbon-based fuels that warp our transportation choices, our economic models and our climate.

The teach-ins, the urgent demands and the government interventions are still needed.

But so, too, is the leadership that was provided by the U.S. senator who imagined, called for and made real the promise of the first Earth Day in 1970.

That senator, Wisconsin’s Gaylord Nelson, was a bold progressive who recognized the need to make the health and welfare of human beings a priority over the profits of multinational corporations. Nelson was often a critic of the excesses of government; he shared former President Dwight Eisenhower’s concern about an all-powerful “military-industrial complex” undermining democracy and he was a civil libertarian who worried about the packing of the courts with conservative judicial activists who would side with presidents who would assault our privacy rights in particular and basic freedoms in general. But he understood that when government served as the expression of the popular will, it could do good.

Nelson was frustrated by the failure of Congress and the White House of Richard Nixon to address environmental issues. So he used Earth Day to focus the popular will necessary to generate a sufficient official response to the pollution of our air and water by corporations that cared more about their bottom lines than the health of families that lived near corporate facilities.

The senator sought nothing less than “a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.”

Nelson’s strategy succeeded. The first Earth Day was, according to American Heritage magazine, “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy.”

Within months of Earth Day, the Congress was moving to enact a Clean Air Act and a Clean Water Act, and to create an Environmental Protection Agency. And Nixon was signing the bills.

The first Earth Day proved to be everything Nelson hoped it would be. But he understood that there would need to be more Earth Days, as the struggle to protect the environment needed to be a permanent one.

Nelson participated in Earth Day events until his death in 2005, long after he had left the Senate.

Nelson’s Senate seat is now occupied by a Democrat who shares his vision.

That senator, Russ Feingold, took to the floor of the chamber this week to celebrate Nelson’s legacy, which is important. But he was also there to provide the leadership that is needed today. In particular, Feingold sought support for a sweeping new Clean Water Restoration Act.

Here’s excerpts of what Feingold told the Senate Wednesday:

“I come to the floor to recognize the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and to remember the man who founded Earth Day, the late Wisconsin governor and senator Gaylord Nelson. Before he was the founder of Earth Day, and one of the nation’s greatest conservationists, he was a son of Wisconsin. ...

“He reflected the very best of our state from the beginning, building on Wisconsin’s long tradition of environmental conservation. Our state passed landmark forest and water power conservation acts during the progressive era, and lays claim not only to Gaylord Nelson, but to other giants of the conservation movement like Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Sigurd Olson. ...

“The man from Clear Lake did so much for clear, clean water everywhere, including being a champion of the Clean Water Act. Today the Clean Water Act is under threat because two recent Supreme Court decisions have jeopardized its protections. Those decisions put nearly 20 million acres of wetlands habitat and more than 50 percent of our stream miles in the lower 48 states at risk. These waters could become polluted or wiped out altogether unless Congress takes action. ...

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“This bill is designed to accomplish one basic and important goal -- ensure that the Clean Water Act of 1972 stays in place. There are no new regulations in our legislation, only a return to the original intent of the Clean Water Act, which has protected our waters for more than 35 years.

“Gaylord Nelson and others have done so much to protect the health of our waters, and we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to carry that legacy forward. That’s what I seek to do in the Senate with the Clean Water Restoration Act.

“We face many other challenges as well. Of course climate change looms largest of all. We need to address the serious problem of climate change, and do so without unfairly hurting Wisconsin, which relies on coal for much of its energy needs. If we do this right, we have an opportunity to pass legislation that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create energy jobs here in America. We can help American businesses gain a competitive advantage developing new renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. ...

“I’m grateful to have known Gaylord Nelson, and I’m proud of the legacy he left behind. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, we remember the man from Clear Lake, who came to this body inspired by the beautiful Wisconsin landscape of his childhood, and in the end made a better world for us all.”

It is right and good to honor Gaylord Nelson’s legacy this day, along with the legacy of all the pioneering conservationists and environmental activists who made the first Earth Day a success. But it is equally right and good to recognize how Nelson would have preferred that legacy to be honored.

He would have wanted this Earth Day to inspire a new environmental moment where a Clean Water Restoration Act will be enacted, along with meaningful legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create energy jobs.

As his successor so well and wisely reminds us:

We should all share that intention, just as we should all join Russ Feingold in the essential work of making real not just the legacy but the promise of Gaylord Nelson’s Earth Day vision.