The Birth of Earth Day

The Birth of Earth Day

Concerns about the environment, pollution, and the future of the planet gripped campus 40 years ago.

By Tim Brady

From Spring 2010 issue

Photo: A geodesic dome was partly assembled in front of Coffman Union for Earth Week. Its inventor, Buckminster Fuller, was one of the week’s featured speakers.
Photographs courtesy of University Archives

In January 1970, University of Minnesota students opened a Pollution Report Center to collect stories about environmental violations and serve as an information source on pollution laws and controls. The center also investigated the complaints that came into the office and began to compile lists of polluters to take to legal authorities when evidence of pollution was certified.

Fifty student volunteers signed up to staff the center, located in Coffman Memorial Union, and soon began receiving a couple dozen complaints or questions a day. Most of the inquiries were for general information on the best way to dispose of garbage or what kind of detergent was the least polluting. According to the March 1970 Alumni News (as this magazine was then called), “the center also receives its share of crank callers complaining about such things as ‘mind pollution’ by newspapers.”

“We listen to them. They’re just letting off steam,” said A. Karim Ahmed (M.S ’63, Ph.D. ’69), a graduate student at the time and director of the Pollution Report Center.

A lot of U students were steamed in 1970, in great part because of the Vietnam War. And the growing environmental movement captured (or diverted) some of that student activism energy for home-front matters, like pollution and a first-ever event coming in the spring: a national Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
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It was a busy winter for Ahmed, who in addition to his Pollution Report Center duties was also co-chair of the Environmental Teach-In committee assigned to organize Earth Day festivities on campus. Ahmed, who had recently finished doctoral work in biochemistry and was beginning work as a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, had come to the University of Minnesota from Pakistan as a graduate student in the early 1960s. Among his first interests as a student was Gopher football—a fact that would provide an interesting and unexpected benefit almost a decade later, when he was one of the principal organizers for the U’s Earth Day celebration.


Photo: In 1970, the student-run Pollution Report Center began collecting complaints about environmental concerns, such as this black mound in the Mississippi River near the Third Avenue Bridge. It consisted of snow, chemicals, and street garbage dumped into the water by city snow removal crews.


The national Earth Day
celebration evolved primarily through the efforts of U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin. In a speech in Seattle in the fall of 1969, Nelson proposed a nationwide “teach-in” to spread the word about the world’s growing environmental troubles. He found almost instant support for the idea. A colleague in the House of Representatives, Paul McCloskey of California, agreed to co-chair the organizing efforts and colleges and universities across the country soon committed to the idea. Nelson chose the date, April 22, a Wednesday, to maximize student participation. His reasoning was that a midweek program, before final exams and in the springtime air of late April, would be a popular draw. Teach-In headquarters in Washington, D.C., “made it clear that students are to do their own thing,” as Nelson wrote in an article penned in advance of the first Earth Day for Reader’s Digest, “suggesting only that they might start with the problems on campus and in the neighboring community.”

At the University of Minnesota, interest in the cause seemed to explode in the first few months of 1970. Suddenly, stories of environmental degradation and ecological concerns filled the pages of the Minnesota Daily. The student newspaper ran articles about the damage that lakeshore properties were doing to Minnesota waters; concerns over the disposal of toxic waste at University Hospitals; the siting and emissions of power plants; and the alarm over the increased presence and use of “radar ranges,” otherwise known as microwave ovens.

Faculty members including Professor Eville Gorham, who headed the botany department, wrote essays for the Daily’s editorial page describing environmental woes and promoting an ecological perspective on the use of natural resources. One of his pieces, “Our Environmental Future,” remains remarkably prescient.

“There is increasing evidence that combustion of fossil fuels is injecting carbon dioxide faster than it can be equilibrated with the vast oceanic reservoir of bicarbonate,” Gorham wrote 40 years ago, “and that this carbon dioxide is retarding the re-radiation of incoming heat from the earth’s surface to outer space. Because of such a ‘greenhouse effect’ we would expect a warming of the climate, to a degree that might eventually be sufficient to melt the ice caps and flood many of the world’s major conurbations.”

By 1970, Ahmed’s life in Minnesota had evolved from its focus on academic concerns toward a mix of scholarly pursuits and political activism. He had done some organizing with The Way, a community group in north Minneapolis in the late ’60s, including looking into the effects of lead-poisoning problems associated with substandard housing. He was also president of the campus Biochemistry Club. The mix of political work, environmental concerns, and science made Ahmed a valuable commodity in the growing environmental movement on campus.

Photo: University of Minnesota students kicked off Earth Week with the planting of the “tree of life.” Kevin Diplozza, 12, of Minneapolis read the text of the plaque.


The University of Minnesota committee planned more than an Earth Day, however. It set out to organize an Earth Week celebration and called it the “Festival of Life.” Ahmed was given the assignment of rounding up speakers and panelists for the myriad topics that were to be discussed through the course of the week. “I had had some experience asking people to participate in campus events through my political organizing,” Ahmed recalls. “It helped, too, that so many people were interested in participating.”

In contrast to other protests and demonstrations of the day, a number of “establishment” organizations were eager to sign on to environmental causes in 1970. During the week of the festival, both Northern States Power and General Motors bought full-page ads in the Minnesota Daily that featured remarkable admissions of past sins and promises to change. “Riverside Power Plant causes air pollution,” read the bold headline of NSP’s ad. “We know it and we are in the process of correcting it.” There followed a dense description of how NSP intended to reduce the emissions from the plant. “Does GM Care about Cleaner Air?” read the first line of the automaker’s ad. The company answered its own question: “You bet we do!” Copy detailed just how the car company intended to reduce its products’ pollutants.

Political figures wanted in on the event too. Ahmed recalls that organizers at first purposely withheld invitations to the Minnesota congressional delegation in order to keep the “Festival of Life” removed from political partisanship. A few weeks before the festival, however, U.S. Senator Walter Mondale (M.A. ’51, J.D. ’56) had his staff track down Ahmed, who happened to be in Baltimore at the time. They drove the post-doctoral researcher down to the Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., and in the inner sanctums of his Senate office Mondale himself convinced Ahmed that it would be a good idea to extend an invitation.

“It would have been very hard to say no,” Ahmed says.

Other participants required some maneuvering. The student committee had its eye on booking speaker Paul Ehrlich, author of the best-seller Population Bomb and whom the Daily described as “the grand guru of the ecological movement.” But Ehrlich was in high demand and came with a $3,000 speaking fee, money the committee didn’t have. Plus, Ehrlich happened to have a speaking engagement in Iowa that same week and would need transportation to then detour to Minneapolis. So Ahmed used his connections.

“Years before, I’d gone to one of the Gophers’ Rose Bowl games and spent a very long bus trip—all the way out to California—with a group of administrators from the Dean of Students office,” Ahmed recalls. “We got to be good friends and they were very helpful when we were planning the Earth Day events.” Not only did the University agree to pay for Ehrlich’s speaking fee, they agreed to fly the professor from his Iowa speaking engagement up to the Twin Cities.

As Ahmed secured speakers and participants for the festival—including Buckminster Fuller, who created the geodesic dome; Michael McCloskey, executive director of the National Sierra Club; and antiwar activist and famed pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock—committee co-chair and University student Tom Griffin worked on a program for the week.

The teach-in was an attempt to “see how much ‘ecological conscience’ the community has,” Griffin said in the March 1970 Alumni News. “We are trying to get at the middle American way of life. These people are mostly too patriotic to be against the war, but this [the environmental issue] is something that directly affects them—pretty soon they won’t be able to breathe the air, and they will have to do something about it.”

The “Festival of Life” week would kick off with a tree planting and include workshops on nutrient pollution and the fate of the Boundary Waters, the building of a geodesic dome, the screening of the documentary Who Killed Lake Erie?, a reading of a “Declaration of Interdependence” and an “Environmental Bill of Rights,” a mock ceremony to present awards to local polluters, and a Jazz Funeral Bicycle Caravan from Northrop to the General Electric stockholders’ meeting taking place at the Minneapolis Auditorium downtown.


Photo: An estimated 350 students rode their bikes to the General Electric stockholders’ meeting taking place in downtown Minneapolis, drawing national media attention.



Not everything went quite as planned. Wet weather kept crowds down for the bicycle caravan to the GE stockholders’ meeting, though more than 350 still made the trek from campus to downtown Minneapolis. The geodesic dome on the lawn of the Coffman Union was still missing several panels when the festival opened on Monday morning with a speech from U president Malcolm Moos. The president’s talk was followed by the reading of the text of a plaque that was to accompany the planting of the “tree of life.” Twelve-year old Kevin Diplozza of Minneapolis, embodying the voice of tomorrow, did the honors:

“On this day, April 20, 1970, representatives of the human race planted this tree symbolizing their hopes for an environment in which humanity could survive,” Kevin read. “This plaque has been placed here as a service to future archaeologists—of whatever species or planet—in case our hopes prove vain.” Unfortunately, the plaque was not quite finished either.

But, overall, the week was full of hope and promise for the movement, with a lightness of touch often lacking in other demonstrations. Thirty-five busloads of high school students from around the Twin Cities area filled Coffman Union to hear Senator Mondale and the Sierra Club’s McCloskey. Participants handed out packets of flower seeds to the marchers and bicyclists heading to the GE protest, many of whom tooted on kazoos for the length of the trip. An old Cadillac was parked in front of Coffman, and students were encouraged to take a whack at it with sledgehammers to encourage the crushing of automobiles for recycling purposes.

For the speech by ’60’s icon Paul Ehrlich, Northrop Auditorium quickly filled to capacity. The crowd overflowed onto Northrop Mall where people listened through a public address system. Even more people crowded into Coffman Union to listen via speaker. In all, an estimated 15,000 people heard Ehrlich on campus that day. For students like Larry Pogemiller (B.A. ’74), then 18 years old, it was an inspiring week, even if some of the details have faded from the passing of 40 years.

“I remember listening to Ehrlich’s speech, and I remember those teach-ins, and I remember that Coffman Union was just full of booths dedicated to specific environmental issues,” Pogemiller says. “More than all of that, I remember a sense of excitement. It really felt like we were at the center of something big. It felt like this is why I went to a big school like the University of Minnesota. That I wanted to be a part of things like this.”

The University of Minnesota was one of three campuses featured on television network coverage of the Earth Day festivities, and the New York Times gave prominent space to the protest at the GE stockholders meeting. It helped that participants had finagled proxy stockholder voting rights and nominated Dr. Spock, as well as local antiwar activist Marv Davidov and U of M physics professor Dr. Clayton Giese, for the GE board of directors. Tongue-in-cheek signs within the hall read “Socket to G.E.” and “G.E. is Lightheaded.”

“The sentiment was more aspirational than confrontational,” recalls Pogemiller. “The Earth Day stuff drew a wide array of students and at bottom I think its sensibility was, ‘We can do better than this. We need to work together to fix these problems.’ ”

Ahmed’s involvement in the movement, beginning in Minnesota, would lead to a lifetime of work in environmental science. From the U of M, he moved to a post as a senior staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City, where he directed a scientific program on a variety of environmental health issues. He subsequently worked as deputy director of the Program on Health, Environment, and Development at the World Resources Institute and then founded and served as president of the Global Children’s Health and Environment Fund. He currently serves as an adjunct professor in environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

Before leaving Minnesota, Ahmed helped found the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG), which was the first such state organization in the nation. Designed to advocate for consumer and environmental protection issues, it quickly brought to the fore matters like the dangerous use of asbestos in construction and the need to protect Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.

Pogemiller worked as a student volunteer in MPIRG offices and ultimately started a political career that has led to his current position as majority leader in the Minnesota State Senate. He was a sponsor of the recently enacted Legacy Act, the state constitutional amendment designed to create an ongoing funding stream for environmental concerns through an addition to the state sales tax.

As for that first Earth Day at the University of Minnesota: The teach-ins and festival surrounding it wound down with the Buckminster Fuller speech on Friday. The talk itself turned out to be achingly long and densely intellectual. “He was known for giving Castro-length speeches,” says Ahmed. As well, the geodesic dome remained unfinished as he spoke, perhaps serving as a kind of a metaphor for the unfinished business of the environmental movement as a whole.

The exact fate of the “tree of life” is unknown. The University’s head groundskeeper believes that it may have been torn up during a construction project at Coffman.

Of course, Earth Day itself lives on. The novelty is long gone and the fervor has been dispersed and complicated by 40 years of environmental battles, disappointments, and ongoing concerns. But what was born in 1970 on campuses like the University of Minnesota remains an internationally recognized day to consider the fragility of planet Earth.

Tim Brady is a St. Paul–based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Minnesota.


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