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Wisconsin Environmentalist: Earth Day is Still Relevant

Preservation of Wisconsin's natural resources was just one of the many reasons that led Gaylord Nelson to found Earth Day 43 years ago. (Clean Wisconsin)
Preservation of Wisconsin's natural resources was just one of the many reasons that led Gaylord Nelson to found Earth Day 43 years ago. (Clean Wisconsin)
April 20, 2016

MADISON, Wis. - Nearly every Wisconsinite knows Earth Day, which will be observed this year on Friday, April 22, was founded by former Wisconsin Governor and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970.

Paul Robbins, the director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, sits at the actual desk used by Gaylord Nelson every work day.

He's not sure if Nelson, who passed away in 2005, could have imagined the hyper-partisan world we now inhabit. Robbins says when Nelson founded Earth Day, it had nothing to do with politics.

"Gaylord Nelson wanted this to be a teach-in," says Robbins. "He didn't call for mass mobilization in the street, he didn't call for pickets, he called for a conversation. And so you still have got to stop and reflect and learn, that's why it's a community event."

Robbins says Earth Day is even more relevant now than in 1970, because today's environmental challenges are bigger than those that inspired Nelson.

Robbins says global climate change and the extreme super storms and weather events of the past few years have made everyone aware of environmental change.

Nelson, who was born and raised in a small town in northern Wisconsin, was concerned in 1970 about the challenges of pollution, oil spills, wilderness preservation, and other issues of the day.

Robbins believes if Nelson were still alive, he'd be appalled that global climate change has become such a politicized issue. But he also thinks Nelson would find things to be happy about.

"I think he'd be quite pleasantly surprised that in particular his injunction that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, and not the other way around - that's a Gaylord Nelson quote," he says. "I think he'd be quite impressed that businesses actually, many, not all, actually think that way."

Robbins says there is cause for hope, because some of the world's largest companies have established greenhouse gas reduction plans and have steadily increased their use of renewable energy sources.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI