Photo: Students and faculty at the University of Michigan organized an environmental teach-in attended by 50,000 people in March 1970. It led to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
By Dave Dempsey
Although American environmentalism reaches back to the early 20th century, public demands for clean water, clean air, and healthy ecosystems reached a crescendo in 1970. As 2020 dawns, FLOW believes it’s time to remember and reflect on all that happened that 50 years ago—and how we can make the next 50 years a time of further dramatic progress for our precious waters and the environment.
In the minds of some who were present then, the most prominent environmental memory of 1970 is likely the first national observance of Earth Day, April 22—with Michigan out front on that one. In March 1970, students and faculty on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor organized what they called an Environmental Teach-In.
At the five-day teach-in, in which an estimated 50,000 people participated, Victor Yannacone, a nationally recognized environmental attorney, spoke on use of the courts to halt pollution. He told students, “This land is your land. It doesn’t belong to Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler…it doesn’t belong to any soulless corporation. It belongs to you and me.” A new student group called ENACT organized the week’s events, which included an “Environmental Scream-Out,” a tour of local pollution sites, music by singer Gordon Lightfoot, and speeches by entertainer Arthur Godfrey, scientist Barry Commoner, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and Senators Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and Edward Muskie of Maine.
The national observance of Earth Day followed on April 22.
Earth Day 1970, however, was just one of many events and accomplishments—and a few crises—both nationally and in Michigan. During 2020, FLOW will note these and other milestones from 50 years ago:
- January 1, 1970: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) took effect.
- January 1970: Michigan Governor William G. Milliken unveiled a broad agenda of proposed environmental reforms.
- March 1970: The discovery of alarmingly high levels of toxic mercury temporarily shut down fishing in Lake St. Clair.
- March 1970: Environmental Teach-In at U of M in Ann Arbor
- April 22, 1970: Earth Day
- July 27, 1970: The Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) took effect.
- October 21, 1970: Legislation creating Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwest Lower Michigan took effect.
- December 2, 1970: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was officially created.
- December 3, 1970: The Michigan Natural Rivers Act took effect.
- December 31, 1970: The U.S. Clean Air Act took effect.
- December 31, 1970: The Michigan Great Lakes Shorelands Act was signed into law by Governor Milliken.
The first milestone, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), was co-authored by the late Congressman John Dingell of Michigan. As its title suggests, the law established a federal policy on the environment, created a federal Council on Environmental Quality, and required environmental impact statements on proposed major federal activities affecting the environment.
President Richard Nixon, who signed the legislation, said, “I have become convinced that the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters and its living environment.”
In 1970, there was a broad bipartisan consensus that the United States and Michigan needed to do a much better job of protecting our environment. It’s a lesson from which we can learn today.
Share Your Environmental Recollections from 1970
FLOW is looking for contributions from you for this 50th anniversary year of Earth Day and related milestones. Here’s how you can help:
- Suggest additional local, state, or national milestones from 1970.
- Provide short guest commentaries (500 words) with your views on the significance of 1970, what’s happened since then environmentally, and where you hope we stand 50 years from now.
- Provide your historical photos of significant environmental events from 1970.
If you are interested in submitting material, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy advisor.