Born in Clear Lake, Wisconsin on June 4, 1916, Gaylord Nelson earned a BA degree in 1939 from San Jose State College and a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1942 from the University of Wisconsin Law School. He then served in the U.S. Army for four years during World War II before returning to his home state to practice law.
Nelson began his political career in 1948 as a state senator in Dane County, Wisconsin, and then served two terms as governor of Wisconsin from 1959-63.
In 1962 Nelson was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he went on to represent Wisconsin for 18 years. Aligning himself with liberal-left Democrats who supported the Great Society legislation of the Johnson Administration, Nelson was one of the first senators to condemn America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Nelson also made environmentalism a major focus of his political efforts, as he believed that the pollutants associated with human industrial activity were potentially catastrophic for the natural environment. On January 19, 1970, Nelson delivered a major speech in the Senate outlining his “environmental agenda,” which called for immediate action to: “rid America … of the massive pollution from … [the] internal combustion engine, hard pesticides, detergent pollution, aircraft pollution, and nonreturnable containers”; “reduce ocean pollution by regulating oil drilling”; “establish an environmental education program for all levels of education”; “reduce the use of private automobiles”; and adopt “a national land use policy involving all levels of government to reduce the chaotic, unplanned combination of urban sprawl, industrial expansion, and … pollution.” Nelson also viewed overpopulation as a major threat to human well-being, and thus worked to promote “family planning.”
During his Senate tenure, Nelson sponsored a number of significant environmental bills including the Wilderness Act of 1964. Moreover, he authored legislation to create a national hiking-trails system as well as the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail.
Nelson is best known for conceiving the idea of Earth Day in 1969, when he and Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich decided to organize a nationwide teach-in on environmentalism. They recruited Denis Hayes to coordinate and implement the event, called Earth Day, which was held on April 22, 1970 and thereafter became an annual happening. Nelson not only raised the funds necessary to get the project off the ground, but also wrote letters to all 50 state governors and to the mayors of major U.S. cities requesting that they each issue Earth Day Proclamations. Further, he sent articles explaining Earth Day’s premises and agendas to college newspapers across the U.S. and to Scholastic Magazine, which targeted high schools and elementary schools. (For additional information on Earth Day and its significance, click here.)
Soon thereafter, Nelson published two books about environmental issues. In the first, titled America’s Last Chance to Preserve the Earth (1970), he discussed the harm that human industrial activity was doing to land, water, and air across the globe. The second book, What are Me and You Gonna Do? (1971), was a collection of letters which children had written to Senator Nelson about their environmental concerns.
In 1965, Nelson introduced the first legislation to ban the pesticide DDT, which was eventually outlawed in 1972.
After losing his 1980 Senate re-election bid to Republican Robert Kasten, Nelson became counselor to the Wilderness Society the following year.
In 1982 Nelson received the United Nations‘ Environmental Leadership Award. Ten years after that, he was given the UN’s “Only One Earth” Award.
In September 1995 Nelson was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.
Nelson died on July 3, 2005, at the age of 85, in Kensington, Maryland.
Further Reading: “Gaylord Nelson” (Wilderness.org); “Gaylord Nelson: Founder of Earth Day” (Wilderness.net); “Gaylord Nelson” (Encyclopedia .com); “Meet Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day” (NelsonEarthDay.net); “The Human-Hating Roots of the Green Movement” (FrontPageMag.com, 4-23-2013); “Senator Gaylord Nelson” (Environbusiness.com).