Earth Day Eve
By James Tobin
We never in our wildest imagination conceived at the outset how big it was going to be.– Doug Scott
Chapter 1 When Jupiter Aligned With Mars
Even at the age of 25, Doug Scott knew how to project his voice to a crowd. For two summers in college, he’d been a guide for the National Park Service at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. When you’re standing in a gigantic cave, you learn to project or nobody hears you. So talking loud to a crowd was not the problem.
The problem was the spotlight that hit him in the eyes when he ventured out on the stage at Crisler Arena—that and the packed-in thousands of restless people he could hear but not see because the light was so bright, and the thousands more outside in the parking lot listening to loudspeakers, and the reporters from all over the country, and the senators and activists and superbrains waiting in line for their turn to address the crowd.
It was 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 11, 1970. Months earlier, when Scott and his buddies in zoology and natural resources had started all this, they had bravely said they intended to think big. But nobody had thought this big. Nobody had thought their little Teach-In on the Environment would look like Woodstock wrapped in the Democratic National Convention.
Now the moment had come, and Doug Scott was a little scared.
But somebody had to start it, so he squinted into the light and told the crowd the fire marshal wouldn’t let people stand in the aisles, so would everybody please sit down? Then he said: “Ladies and gentlemen, the cast of Hair…”
Then the Chicago cast of Hair ran out from behind a curtain and the lead singer started to sing those eerie first lyrics of “The Age of Aquarius.”
When the moon is in the seventh house…
And her microphone wasn’t working.
For a second Doug Scott just about died. Then he came to and herded the actors back behind the curtain. In a minute the sound guy hissed: “It’s working now…it’s working!”
So Scott sent the actors back out, and the microphone worked, and for the next few days the University of Michigan hosted what may have been the most important single event in its history, an event that pushed on the wheel of history and launched the modern movement to save the planet from environmental disaster.
Michigan’s Teach-In on the Environment was not the first Earth Day. It was the huge and spectacularly successful prototype of the first Earth Day, which happened five weeks later—“the most famous little-known event,” one historian has written, “in modern American history.”
Chapter 2 “Constructive Outrage”
When people tried to remember whose idea it had been, somebody said there had been a guy in the Center for Japanese Studies who remarked to a grad student in botany that Michigan ought to have a teach-in on the environment like the big U-M teach-in on Vietnam in 1965.
The botany guy mentioned the idea to friends in the School of Natural Resources, who told other friends about it in a hallway in the Dana Building, and they had a brown-bag meeting in a classroom, and that was the start of it.
They formed a little organization—Environmental Action for Survival, Inc., or ENACT (every activist group needed a catchy acronym)—and picked two co-chairs. One was Dave Allan, a Ph.D. student in Zoology. The other was Doug Scott, who was working on a master’s degree in Forest Recreation in the School of Natural Resources.
It was September 1969. Pollution was in the news, with TV images of seabirds dying in oil spills and the Cuyahoga River catching on fire in Cleveland. But the big issue was still Vietnam. People on campus were getting ready for a huge national protest on October 15 called the Moratorium to End the War. There was to be a giant rally in Ann Arbor.
In the midst of all this, the leaders of ENACT called a meeting.
Some in the room were radicals of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) persuasion. They wanted the teach-in to target their fellow student radicals; it should fire them up for a broader assault on industrial capitalism, the despoiler not only of Southeast Asia but of the entire planet.
Others in the room, a larger number, were not half so radical, including the original cadre of organizers from Zoology and Botany and Natural Resources. Some weren’t students at all, but professors and people from the Ann Arbor community—teachers, lawyers, officials in local government. They believed you could do good with the conventional tools of politics and public policy, and they wanted the teach-in to educate the broader public in pursuit of specific actions to make things better.
The discussion got loud and tense, and finally Doug Scott told everybody to quit interrupting and talk one at a time, answering two questions: Who was the teach-in’s main audience, and what was the desired outcome?
They went around the room. Scott took notes afterward:
The radicals admitted that they did not mean anti-social, violent, or hopelessly irrational upheaval and shouting about environmental issues. Rather, it was their intent that the nature of the subject matter and its presentation during the teach-in would generate a sense of constructive outrage amongst the participants. Similarly, the anti-radicals admitted that they did not intend the teach-in to be merely a PTA-style presentation.
They all agreed the teach-in should target the University community as a whole and influential people in government and industry—those were the primary targets. The general public was secondary.
“Constructive outrage”—that was a nice combination. Radicals and anti-radicals could get behind it.
“Constructive outrage”—that was a nice combination. Radicals and anti-radicals could get behind it.
Chapter 3 A Friend of the Wilderness
Doug Scott had fallen in love with the national parks.
As a kid he had learned mountain-climbing in his native Pacific Northwest. During summer jobs at Mount Rainier and Carlsbad Caverns, he read the history and learned the lore of the Park Service. He couldn’t get enough of it.
But his personal life hit a bad patch. During his second year at Willamette University, his mother died in an auto accident. He fell into a sophomore slump. He went to a friend, the chief ranger at Carlsbad, and asked: “What do you need to do to go into the Park Service?”
“The best thing to do is get a degree in forestry or forest recreation,” his friend told him. “There’s just a few places in the country that have a really good program, and the very best is at the University of Michigan—the School of Natural Resources.”
So—after boning up on basic sciences at the University of Washington—he set off for Ann Arbor. There he found a mentor in Professor Grant W. Sharpe, a pioneer in environmental education and a booster of the Park Service. In courses such as tree identification and forest recreation, he did well, and after graduating he stayed on to pursue a master’s in forestry—as much to avoid the Vietnam draft as to compound his schooling.
But then, like a lot of successful people who have a great experience in college, he found out that the most important learning often happened between classes—in chats with professors, or with fellow students over a beer, or in some project you got involved in almost by accident. College offered a crucible of smart people and intriguing opportunities. Some passed through it unchanged. Some were transformed.
For Scott the key moment came when Professor Sharpe took a group of students to Isle Royale National Park, the wild rock left behind by the glaciers in Lake Superior. “It was eye-opening for a wilderness-loving kid from the Cascades to discover this astonishingly deep wilderness in the Midwest,” he recalled. Because of that trip, he wound up testifying at the Park Service hearing about the proposal to designate portions of Isle Royale as statutory wilderness. It was a taste of how federal land policy was made, and he liked it.
Soon he was doing work for the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and the Wilderness Society—in Ann Arbor, New York, Washington—while still in school. He was staying up half the night reading dusty old Wilderness Society files for a master’s thesis on the history of the federal Wilderness Act. In the summer of 1969 he took on more work in the office of U.S. Senator Philip Hart of Michigan, who was leading efforts to protect the Sleeping Bear Dunes as a national lakeshore.
All this work overlapped. Scott’s knowledge of the Park Service was handy in the Sleeping Bear planning. His knowledge of federal wilderness law helped Hart and his staff when they met with people from the Interior Department. At the Sierra Club office he would draft a letter for Senator Hart’s signature that would go out to Sierra Club members in Michigan to urge support for some piece of the Sleeping Bear campaign.
His heart was in the wild outdoors, but he was finding his true gifts in the offices and hearing rooms where wilderness policy was made. In New York he told the head of the National Audubon Society that he no longer wanted a career in the Park Service. He was hoping to make his mark in Washington.
“Doug, let me give you some advice,” Charles Callison said. “I’ve tried both, and I find working on government a good deal more fun than working in government.”
That stuck with him. He would be a lobbyist on behalf of the American wilderness.
In fact, between 1966 and 1969, still in his early 20s, he made himself into one of the canniest, hardest-working environmental advocates in the country, with deep, first-hand knowledge of the great environmental groups, the national parks, and the workings of Congress.
With those experiences in his pocket, he became co-chair of the Teach-In on the Environment in Ann Arbor.
Scott reflected on these events many years later in a long series of oral-history interviews conducted at the University of California at Berkeley.
“We went into this,” he said, “with a common attitude…which was: ‘We are going to set no artificial limits on our ambitions for this thing.’”
Chapter 4 “We’re Really Doing This”
Just after the Vietnam moratorium on October 15, 1969, ENACT’s leaders saw a squib in TIME magazine. It said Senator Gaylord Nelson, Democrat of Wisconsin and a leading anti-pollution voice in Washington, was urging college students to organize teach-ins on the environment the following spring.
At first they were annoyed, as if someone had stolen their idea. Then they saw it differently.
Nelson had looked at the calendar and picked April 22, 1970, as the day of the mass teach-in. On most campuses, that date would fall between spring break and final exams.
But not at Michigan. By April 22, 1970, classes would be over in Ann Arbor. ENACT’s planners had the middle of March in mind.
ENACT’s treasurer, Art Hansen, was headed to a student conference on the environment in Washington. When he got there, he dropped in at Senator Nelson’s office, just then buried in mail from people asking how to put on an environmental teach-in. Nobody in Nelson’s office knew.
Hansen told them who he was and said: “Hey, we’re really doing this.”
And he handed over Doug Scott’s two-page memo. Point by point, the memo laid out ENACT’s plan for the Michigan event. It was a template that other schools could follow.
Nelson was delighted. He sent a telegram to Ann Arbor just before ENACT’s first mass meeting, which attracted so many people they had to move to the big multi-purpose room at the UGLI, and there still weren’t enough chairs.
“I AM GREATLY ENCOURAGED BY THE INITIATIVE YOU AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN HAVE TAKEN IN THE PROGRAM,” Nelson wrote. “WE LOOK TO YOUR EFFORT WITH THE FIRST SUCH TEACH-IN TO PROVIDE A PATTERN…WHICH CAN INSPIRE AND GUIDE OTHER TEACH-INS THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY.”
Then Doug Scott was named to Nelson’s planning committee for the national teach-in. On Dec. 1, 1969, Scott sent a letter to dozens of schools offering Michigan’s help.
Momentum was growing. U-M President Robben Fleming said he approved of ENACT’s plans, and the president’s office put up $5,000 to help fund it.
Then Michigan-based Dow Chemical—a favorite villain of anti-war protesters and hardly a darling of the environmental movement—offered its own pledge of $5,000. Scott and the others, anticipating radical complaints about Dow, said all money was green and this was $5,000 Dow wouldn’t spend on manufacturing defoliants bound for Southeast Asia.
They got other donations. When they made up a button saying “Give Earth a Chance,” a thousand sold in the first week, and soon they were placing orders for 20,000 at a time. They made plans to sell tickets. The leaders drew up a budget of $50,000—a crazy figure for a student group in the ’60s.
“By the end of November and December ’69,” Scott remembered, “we had a very large thing under way.”
Chapter 5 Radicals
In February 1970, students from some 50 colleges and universities came to Ann Arbor for a workshop on how to hold Earth Day teach-ins on their own campuses. ENACT passed out materials with point-by-point instructions.
Doug Scott sat in meetings and listened to fiery anti-Establishment speeches by undergraduates who had never seen the Capitol dome, let alone watched a congressional committee mark up an actual piece of legislation. He had watched Sen. Phil Hart and U.S. Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican, come to terms on workable protection for the priceless Sleeping Bear lakeshore.
“My commitment to work within the system was pretty strongly fixed,” he said later. “My sense was that radicalism was fine. If you had a radical commitment, I was prepared to be tolerant about it. But I thought you hadn’t really earned the right to be radical and say the system sucks and it doesn’t work and it won’t save the earth unless you’d tried it. I’d tried it, and I had found it highly responsive.
“Now, I was trying it on relatively simpleminded things, but I had found that I, as one person, depending on how much energy I wanted to put into it, how hard I wanted to study and learn and…build my skills, that I could make the U.S. Congress do what I wanted it to on side issues. So I wasn’t about to give up on that.
“Furthermore, I always had the theory that a society that turns to anarchy isn’t a society that’s going to stop pollution…If everybody’s just looking out for themselves, it doesn’t matter how radical they are if they’re polluting the creek.”
So Scott and the steering committee said: You want to take a sledgehammer to a car on the Diag? Go ahead. We’ll sell tickets. And while you do that, we’ll talk about how to get Congress and General Motors to cut poisonous emissions into the air you’re breathing.
The syndicated columnist Joseph Kraft, of the Washington Post, came to Ann Arbor to nose around. Some SDS types told him ENACT and the whole Earth Day thing was a do-good diversion by the Establishment, a trick to keep kids from protesting about racial injustice and Vietnam. But Kraft liked what he saw.
“Far from being a cop-out,” he wrote, “the environmental movement looks like a way of involving straight kids in political issues—a cop-in, so to speak.”
ENACT’s leaders took pains to cover their left flank. When black students said ENACT was paying only token attention to racial issues, Scott and Allan promptly apologized and reserved time in the teach-in schedule for discussions of race and the environment. When militants pooh-poohed ENACT’s radical pedigree, ENACT asserted its own militancy.
“There are people in government, industry, and the offices of university presidents who think this is going to keep kids quiet on the campuses,” Scott told the Chicago Daily News. “They are terribly wrong.”
Chapter 6 Yes
It was time to nail down speakers. They wrote down the biggest names they could think of. They figured a few would say yes; then they’d fill in the program from their back-up list.
Right away, Sens. Gaylord Nelson and Phil Hart said yes. William Milliken, the Republican governor of Michigan, said yes. Sen. Edmund Muskie, the frontrunner for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, said he couldn’t make the opening rally but he’d like to speak at the wrap-up event.
The ecologist Barry Commoner had just been on the cover of TIME—he said yes. The great environmentalist David Brower had run the Sierra Club and founded the Friends of the Earth—he said yes.
They asked corporate executives and labor leaders. Herbert Doan, the CEO of Dow Chemical, said yes. So did Charles Luce, the head of Consolidated Edison. Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, said yes.
They asked radical activists and deep thinkers. Ralph Nader said yes. Rene DuBos, the microbiologist and environmentalist philosopher who would soon coin the slogan “Think globally; act locally,” said yes. Kenneth Boulding, the Pulitzer Prize-winning economist who popularized the concept of “Spaceship Earth,” said yes.
They asked Gordon Lightfoot, then one of the most popular singer-songwriters in the world. He said yes.
They invited mainstream TV stars who were popular with the Lawrence Welk set but also pro-environment—Arthur Godfrey and Eddie Albert. Both said yes.
After a while they weren’t asking any more. They were turning down politicians who wrote to ask if they could speak, too.
ENACT designed a four-day program for events all over the campus and the city. For the biggest event—a kick-off rally with speeches and entertainment—they booked Hill Auditorium, with 4,200 seats.
Then they started to think Hill wouldn’t be big enough.
Nervously, they canceled the Hill reservation and booked the University Events Building—just renamed Crisler Arena—site of Big Ten basketball games and sold-out rock concerts, with a capacity of 13,609.
Could they fill it? Could they possibly attract 13,609 people to hear a bunch of anti-pollution speeches?
As Scott remembered, “We sort of thought to ourselves, ‘Now what have we gotten ourselves into?’”
Chapter 7 Four Days in March
The crowd in Crisler Arena overflowed into the parking lots. Workshops and rallies were swarmed by Michigan students, schoolkids, retirees, and PTA parents. When it was over, the New York Times said Michigan’s Teach-In on the Environment had been “by any reckoning…one of the most extraordinary ‘happenings’ ever to hit the great American heartland: Four solid days of soul-searching, by thousands of people, young and old, about ecological exigencies confronting the human race.”
Measured against the extreme rhetoric and violent protests that set the tone of the era, it was an earnest, even quiet, event. A few speakers were heckled and a few showy demonstrations drew heavy media attention—the “trial and execution” of a 1959 Ford on the Diag; the dumping of 10,000 non-returnable pop cans at a Coca-Cola bottling plant (afterward students picked up the cans and threw them away, an irony not lost on reporters); the smearing of tar and feathers on a building where an oil company was interviewing job prospects.
But the other events were serious, sober exchanges of information and ideas taken in by rapt audiences.
By the Michigan Daily’s count, there were at least 125 separate events. The Law School hosted authorities on the emerging specialty of environmental law. The Physics Department put on a computer simulation of how urban centers were expanding. With a crowd listening closely, an ecologist, a lakes scientist and an engineer discussed the future of the Great Lakes. There was a symposium on pesticides, a philosophical workshop on “the bridge between ideals and action,” a panel discussion of “the root causes of the environmental crisis.”
There were three or four big rallies, assemblies at the Ann Arbor high schools; and dozens of small workshops all over campus. Virtually every department held some sort of observance. On the final day, March 14, David Brower of the Friends of the Earth, arguably the leading figure in the entire environmental movement, led a mass walk along the Huron River.
Some black students boycotted the event. Radicals were invited to vent their critique of environmentalism at an “Environmental Scream-Out,” and several speakers warned that revolution, not a clean-up, was the only answer to industrial pollution.
But such “dissent,” wrote Gladwin Hill, the reporter from the New York Times, “if not refuted, was systematically enveloped.”
Edmund Muskie himself said: “I hope that the issue of environmental protection does not become a smokescreen that will obscure the overall crisis in America. The study of ecology—man’s relationship with his environment—should finally teach us that our relationships with each other are just as intricate and just as delicate as those with our natural environment.”
Chapter 8 Epilogue
“The Michigan teach-in was the first sign that Earth Day would be a stunning success,” writes the historian Adam Rome, author of The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation (2013).
Indeed, Earth Day 1970, observed in thousands of schools and communities small and large five weeks after Michigan’s Teach-In on the Environment, was a spectacular experiment in public education that made millions of people aware that the planet was in danger. The national event has been credited with crystallizing scattered fears into a mass movement that brought about real change—curbs on water and air pollution, protections for wilderness and wildlife, the creation of environmental protection agencies at the state and federal levels. And that movement paved the way for today’s awareness of the dangers of climate change.
“It wasn’t that Doug Scott or Gaylord Nelson came up with some grand plan and pulled it over,” Doug Scott said some 20 years later. “There was something going on in the drinking water or in the air, in the whole country, that mushroomed in the fall of ’69 into the Earth Day movement.”
Yet the event in Ann Arbor was not only a sign of the times but a prime mover of all that followed. There is no way to quantify the effect of ENACT’s outreach to dozens of colleges and universities or of the aid that ENACT gave to Sen. Nelson’s national organizing. But it was surely considerable. And Michigan’s teach-in in March—superbly organized and mobbed with interested people—lent legitimacy to the looming national event in the eyes of news organizations and power-brokers. ENACT’s big-tent strategy, incorporating all strains of opinion, made its own Teach-In an event of far greater long-term impact than many more militant protests of the ’60s that drew headlines, then were forgotten.
* * *
Early on the morning after the Teach-In’s last day, a journalist named Luther Carter, of Science magazine, looked in at ENACT’s compact office in the Michigan League. He had been around all week and made friends with the organizers. In the office he found Doug Scott and a few others, exhausted but still buzzing with adrenalin.
Carter smiled and said: “You know, you guys are never going to organize anything this big again in your lives.”
ENACT not only made thousands of people environmentally aware; it changed lives, especially the lives of the organizers, who in turn helped to shape the modern environmental movement.
John Turner, who organized publicity for ENACT, was the Republican son of a Wyoming cattle rancher. The Teach-In steered him into politics. In the Wyoming legislature he fought for environmental protections. Then he became director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the first Bush administration; president of the Conservation Foundation in the 1990s; and assistant secretary of state for global environmental issues under the second President Bush.
Art Hansen, ENACT’s finance chief, the one who told Gaylord Nelson’s staff what was going on at Michigan, finished his Ph.D. in natural resources. A Canadian, he became a professor of natural resources; head of the International Institute for Sustainable Development; and a leading adviser on sustainable development to governments in North America and Asia.
David Allan, co-chair of ENACT, was the most committed to pure science among the organization’s leaders. But the Teach-In steered him toward studying the connections between science and policy. He became an authority on the impact of human activity on the ecosystems of rivers and streams—and professor and eventually dean of U-M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Doug Scott became one of the leading advocates for American wilderness of his generation. Just in the ten years after Earth Day, he played key roles in such landmark laws as the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act of 1975, the Endangered American Wilderness Act of 1978, and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.
He was a lobbyist for the Wilderness Society, then for the Sierra Club (where he eventually became conservation director), then for the wilderness arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts. He retired from Pew in 2012. He writes about wilderness and other subjects and travels often to give talks on wilderness history and politics. He lives in Seattle.
Doug Scott’s oral history, which includes his recollections of Michigan’s Teach-In on the Environment, can be found online at the Sierra Club Oral History Series of the Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Other sources included Professor David Allan of U-M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment; the papers of David Chudwin, Bentley Historical Library; and Adam Rome, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation (2013).
“The Michigan teach-in was the first sign that Earth Day would be a stunning success.”