This is an article from the spring 2015 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.

Historian Adam Rome has referred to the first Earth Day as “the most famous little-known event in modern American history.” U-M played a vital role in creating the event, which shaped a movement and a generation by delivering a single message: The environment is in crisis, and something has to be done about it.

Although the first official Earth Day was observed on April 22, 1970, its roots lie in the teach-ins that occurred across the country for weeks prior to the actual event. A direct response to a national call to action given by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, a lifelong conservationist and political activist for environmental issues, the U-M teach-in was inspired by similar consciousness-raising events held by the antiwar movement, this time with the aims of informing the public and galvanizing support for environmental concerns.

The environmental teach-in on the U-M campus launched on March 11, 1970, and continued through March 14—the largest and most visible of the pre-Earth Day teach-ins happening across the country. It included more than 125 activities and inspired students at more than 1,500 separate colleges and 10,000 schools to hold their own teach-in events.

It began with music, with the Chicago cast of Hair performing “Let the Sunshine In.” Michigan Governor William Milliken was the first speaker, followed by the keynote address delivered by biology professor and activist Barry Commoner, who had recently gained fame by appearing on the cover of Time magazine as the “Paul Revere of Ecology.” Commoner’s rules of ecology were simple: “Everything is connected to everything else. Everything must go somewhere. Nature knows best. There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

Teach In, Reach Out

John Russell (M.S. ’66) attended the first Earth Day teach-in at U-M, and his strongest memory of being among the thousands of people in Crisler Arena is how awed he was by the massiveness of the event. He was also happy and relieved: The organizers had somehow pulled the whole thing off. When Russell, who helped organize the teach-in, realized there was nothing left for him to do except watch the event unfold, he turned to a friend and said, “Now what? I don’t know what to do.” It was the first time he had been able to relax in months. “I had slept two hours a night for six months straight,” he says, and as the teach-in continued and then concluded, Russell found himself searching for what to do next.

An outside rally at an Earth Day event in 1970. Organizers raised more than $50,000 to put on the Earth Day teach-in, and the events included a mock trial in which a 1959 Ford sedan was prosecuted for “crimes against the environment.” Photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library

But there was plenty of work to be done. Russell, as part of a Michigan student group called ENACT: Environmental Action for Survival, had goals beyond a few days of celebration and consciousness raising. He says that he and the group wanted to leave something permanent to the community, a longer legacy of environmental awareness and responsibility. They lobbied for new state legislation in Lansing, including the returnable bottle bill. They also created the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor in 1970, which is still active today as a space for members of the community to discuss environmental issues and advocate for the promotion and legislation of pro-environmental practices.

And the subsequent Earth Day celebrations across the country have left their own legacy. They are credited with inspiring the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Only eight months after the first Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed.

Although environmental protection has since become a highly partisan issue, it seemed far less so then.

The teach-in itself was decidedly bipartisan, Russell notes. Governor Milliken was a Republican, and he praised the environmental reform movement for resisting both partisanship and the generation gap, calling it “a crusade that knows no geographical or political boundaries or boundaries in age.” After the first Earth Day, the New York Times wrote: “Conservatives were for it. Liberals were for it. Democrats, Republicans, and independents were for it. … It was Earth Day, and like Mother’s Day, no man in public office could be against it.”

This article is part of a larger environmental series in honor of the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. U-M kicked off the first nationwide Earth Day in 1970 by hosting a teach-in that drew more than 50,000 people. Also in this series: