Northwestern's Historical Role in the Creation of Earth Day


By Amanda Hermans As Earth Week 2015 comes to a close, let’s take a trip back in time to the origins of this environmental celebration.

A poster advertising Project Survival. Courtesy of Northwestern University Library Archives

The year is 1970. The day is January 23. The setting is the Technological Institute at Northwestern University, fondly nicknamed “Tech.” This is where reports say between five to ten thousand people gathered for Project Survival, the nation’s first environmental “teach-out.”

The story at Northwestern is one not often told when people talk about the origins of Earth Day in America, though it is an important part of both Northwestern’s and Earth Day’s history. The environmental support shown on our campus in January 1970 sparked the momentum for about 350 other events planned that year at universities across the nation. They all lead up to the first national Earth Day.

The first Earth Day happened on April 22, 1970. Support for the environment grew over the course of the decade preceding the event, in reaction to events like the the Cuyahoga River catching on fire due to pollution, the massive oil spill in Santa Barbara and the publishing of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring advocating against the harmful chemical DDT. By 1970, the American people rallied behind the idea of a day for environmental education and awareness.

“There was growing awareness of the scale of industrial pollution in the United States,” said Keith Woodhouse, a history professor at Northwestern. “[There was] this notion that everything is interconnected… and that pollution and harm to the environment is not just about pretty places that are very far away, but our own neighborhoods, our own bodies, our own families, our own homes.”

A newspaper clipping of Project Survival. Courtesy of Northwestern University Library Archives

As with many movements, support for the environment and for Earth Day gained a large base on college campuses. At Northwestern, an environmental group formed in the summer of 1969 after just one meeting about pollution in Lake Michigan. They called themselves Northwestern Students for a Better Environment, or NSBE. According to Northwestern’s website, the group planned the premier Earth Day event in less than two months. They called it Project Survival, and their goal was create an awareness of the severity of environmental issues using a basis of sound research.

Casey Jason, the president of NSBE, said "The anti-war protesters were important - they stopped the war. But we wanted to create something that you could build on."

The event occurred overnight on January 23, beginning at 7 p.m. and ending the next morning at 8 a.m. The first five hours featured nine prominent speakers on the environment, including environmental attorney Victor Yannacone, ecologist Barry Commoner, and biologist Paul Ehrlich. The speeches were followed at midnight with a performance by folk singer/songwriter Tom Paxton. He debuted his song “Whose Garden Was This,” which he wrote in honor of the first Earth Day. The rest of the night was filled with workshops, panelists and study sessions scattered throughout Tech. The event gained broad national coverage from media companies including CBS, NBC, Time Magazine, and The Chicago Tribune.

The success of Project Survival and the attention that it gained laid a groundwork for other pre-Earth Day events at institutions across the nation, and fostered a base of support that culminated in the demonstration of 20 million Americans in April of that year.

Environmental student group mingled with guests at the Earth Day Celebration event this Wednesday. Photo by Jessie Moravek

Forty-five years later, the Northwestern community gathered back in Tech to celebrate the roots of Earth Day at Northwestern. In the Willens Atrium, the Environmental

Sciences, Engineering, and Policy and Culture departments hosted an open house event including food and a rendition of Paxton’s “Whose Garden Was This,” performed by NU students on Wednesday April 22. It didn’t last overnight like the original event did, but students’ passion for the environment was evident. Over 25 student groups and departments—all dedicated to the environment—had tables where they taught about their work. With a shirt tie-dying station and retro earthy music playing, it could have been 1970 again.

Project Survival helped spawn an environmental movement that stuck not only at Northwestern, but also globally. We still take time to celebrate the Earth every April 22, in part because of the lasting efforts made by the students of NSBE and similar groups across the nation. The passion, knowledge, and support shared at Project Survival set a standard for a greater environmental community. This legacy is something all Wildcats should be proud of.

“It’s pretty cool to realize that this event which is celebrated all across the nation and all around the world pretty much started here,” said Lauren Wustenberg, a senior Environmental Science major who helped plan this year's event. “This isn’t something that should only belong to the environmental community. It is a Northwestern tradition, in the most real sense.”

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