June 6, 2020

I wonder how many of you might recognize this name–Gaylord Nelson?  Here’s a hint; Senator Gaylord Nelson.  He died in 2005 at the age of 89 after a lifetime of public service.  He was a World War II veteran, a lawyer and a lawmaker, a governor of Wisconsin and three times Senator from that state.  He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 for all of that but especially for what is probably his most significant accomplishment, yet an accomplishment that does not bear his name and which many people no longer associate with him.  In 1970, then Senator Nelson founded Earth Day, the very same Earth Day we celebrated for the 50th time this year.

Senator Nelson had already been active in what we would today call “environmental issues” but found very little sympathy within the establishment of the time.  He decided to take the same approach that had been used for several years by campus opponents of the Vietnam War, the “teach-in.”  He determined that the week of April 19th to the 25th would be the best week to have it and the 22nd the best day.

Now contrary to later speculations about the cosmic, astrological or political significance of this date, Senator Nelson actually made a very simple and pragmatic decision:  April 22nd did not fall during exam week, did not conflict with spring break or religious holidays, and was late enough in the year to have decent weather.  More students were likely to be in class and there would be less competition in the middle of the week, so he chose Wednesday–brilliant!

There was soon much speculation about this, however, especially among those who saw any “anti-Establishment” activity on campus as a Communist plot.  It turned out that April 22nd, 1970 was also the 100th birthday of Vladimir Lenin.  When asked about that, Senator Nelson is reported to have said that there were only 365 days in a year and that each one of them was the birth date some tens of millions of people, some good, some bad.  He pointed out that it was also the birthday of St. Francis of Assisi, “a person many consider the world’s first environmentalist,” he said.

Now I share this with you for two reasons.  Firstly, as we continue to observe Earth Day, I just want to hold up the memory of this great American whose reputation on the national scene has faded.  He was a decent man who served his state and his country well for decades and did so with a vision of the common good that went beyond his own nation and certainly beyond his own career.  While there are a few exceptions, the contrast between Gaylord Nelson and too many politicians today who are clearly in it only for power, money and partisan advantage could not be more stark.

Secondly, remembering Senator Nelson as the force behind Earth Day helps me to recover a broader view of the entire movement toward environmental consciousness.  Stewardship of the earth is, or should be, of concern to all people across the entire political spectrum, not just some subset of activists or alternative lifestyle advocates. For years, environmentalists were seen as a tree-huggers who love nature and hate people, extremists who value tree frogs more than jobs.

Thinking of Gaylord Nelson helps me recover the broader picture.  Far from an extremist, Senator Nelson was a straight arrow, a liberal yes, in what used to be a great Wisconsin tradition that appears to have been comprised in recent years, but Nelson was in the mainstream of political life, willing and able to work with all sides for the betterment of the world.  (And isn’t sad that in today’s poisoned political climate, it seems almost naïve to celebrate a straight arrow centrist willing to work with all sides for the betterment of the world?)

In 1969, the Senator said, “I am convinced that all we need to do to bring an overwhelming insistence of the new generation that we stem the tide of environmental disaster is to present the facts clearly and dramatically. To marshal such an effort, I am proposing a national teach-in on the crisis of the environment to be held next spring on every university campus across the Nation. The crisis is so imminent, in my opinion, that every university should set aside one day in the school year-the same day across the Nation-for the teach-in.”

That new generation of 1970 is now of course, we, the Establishment of 2020, and I think we can say with some satisfaction, that some elements of the original Earth Day vision have been made real.  Thanks to the Senator and many others, environmental consciousness and stewardship of the earth is now an integral part of our common life.

Our UU Principles were developed and adapted in the late Seventies and early Eighties.  By that point, there was no question that care for the Earth should be part of our fundamental commitments, part of what we, the member congregations of the UUA covenant to affirm and promote.  While “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” happens to be the seventh in our list of seven does not mean that it is any less important than the other six: It surely is not.

I don’t know what day of the week it is for you, but in my neighborhood Wednesday is trash day; as I carry the separate containers for recyclables to the curb, I have to reflect on how far we have come since 1970, when all of those items would have been just mixed in with everything else.  What a struggle it was to get recycling established; people just didn’t want to do it—it was too inconvenient.  Perhaps you saw the TV show, Mad Men, popular a few years ago.  It was set in the early 1960’s.  There is an episode where the family at the center of the show finishes up a picnic by just leaving their trash at the side of the road and throwing their cans into the woods.  I was surprised by the strength of my visceral revulsion at that scene, even though fictional, and I take that as a indication of how deeply the sense of right and wrong ways to live on the earth has entered into my heart.  Originally dismissed as some kind of subversive plot, the entire nation, even the world, has now come to realize that environmental stewardship is not a plot; it’s not a “cause,” in fact, it’s not even an option.  If nothing else, sheer self-interest tells us we must take good care of the planet, it being the only one we have.

Now it’s easy to get discouraged, as we see the current administration doing its best to curtail or repeal environmental regulations of all sorts.  This is to be resisted and fought—and it’s amazing to me that taking care of the earth is a fight.  It shouldn’t be a fight, but it is.  Yet, the fact that it is a fight actually gives me some hope, because we are fighting a fight today that wasn’t even a fight in 1970—and that’s progress.  In 1970, not many cared.  That today there is a fight means that many now do—millions care and not just in our country but all over the world.  We care, and this means that there is real power—economic, legislative and judicial—on the side of those who advocate for the earth and the seventh generation.  To use Senator Nelson’s phrase, an effort has been marshaled and, even if we do not always agree on the way it should take shape, it has become an effort shared by the entire society, indeed the world.

We speak now of carbon footprints and the costs of development in areas of the world that have moved from oxcarts to automobiles within a single generation.  And despite the denial of some, we speak now with scientific consensus about global warming and rising sea levels, issues that weren’t even on the radar in 1970.  Of course, we are not only speaking about it, we are suffering the effects of it more and more each year.  The scale of that can seem discouraging, beyond our control but, on the other hand, we do know there are many things we can do personally, in our homes and churches and institutions.

Fifty years ago, an effort was marshaled, a conversation was started.  The conversation has become a lot more than a conversation, it has become action; it has become more than that, it has become a battle, a battle that continues to this day.  It has changed everything from how we take out the garbage, to how we energize our homes and churches, to what churches are called to do, to our vision of the world and how far our responsibilities extend.  Yes, progress has been slower than it should; yes, there is always controversy over proper use of resources; yes, the temptations of convenience and short-term profits will always compromise the needs of the seventh generation–but there has been progress and all that we do today represents our voices speaking to and for those generations yet unborn.

So, thank you, Senator Nelson and so many others, for marshaling that effort.  I promise you; we will carry it on.

May it be so.