Drew Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: Drew’s Part in the First Earth Day

By Jocelyn Freeman | Staff Writer

10 mins read
A photo of the 1993 Earth Day celebration, centering around music, as was part of the Drew tradition. Courtesy of The Oak Leaves 1993.

With each passing day, the 53rd annual Earth Day grows closer. In order to celebrate, this week’s article is dedicated to the history of Earth Day in The Forest and the exciting ties that Drew had to the very first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. 

The 1960s was a decade full of dramatic social change. A new conscious culture was tuning in to causes based on equality and the right to be heard regarding social and political issues. Movements with roots in previous decades—such as the Civil Rights Movement—were picking up momentum. 

As new developments regarding the conflict in Vietnam made it back to the American public, a young group of activists, consisting mainly of students and other upper-class young adults, took to organizing and mobilizing as part of what would become a nationwide anti-war movement. Americans, exposed to these movements via the media, were confronted with questions that were left unasked and unanswered as tensions in a variety of communities came to a breaking point.

An image of American folk singer and conservationist Pete Seeger used in the Acorn to promote the Earth Day events. Courtesy of The Acorn, April 1970.

An issue that affected every American’s life was the ever-worsening environmental conditions. While Black and Brown communities were and continue to be hit hardest by industrial pollution, toxic chemical exposure and landfill-bound waste, the white suburban population began to pay attention to these issues. 

In September 1962, Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” took the nation by storm as information about the harmful impacts of the commonplace pesticide DDT was openly written about. A series of environmental disasters throughout the decade continued to capture the public’s attention as activists on dozens of other fronts developed useful skills and tactics for demanding change. 

In 1970, a junior senator from the state of Wisconsin aimed to capitalize on national attention and newly successful student movements. Senator Gaylord Nelson was noted by an April 10, 1970 edition of The Acorn as having “introduced or cosponsored 27 environmental-conserving bills in Congress” and put together a plan for nationwide environmental action. 

Nelson’s plan was first and foremost set in environmental education. Recruiting activist Denis Hayes, Nelson and his team worked to organize the nationwide environmental teach-in. According to Earthday.org, “they choose April 22, a weekday falling between Spring Break and Final Exams, to maximize the greatest student participation.” The movement would go on to spawn protests, rallies, marches, teach-ins and religious services, which were attended by over 20 million Americans. 

Drew’s campus was not missing from the action. In fact, if it had not been for senatorial obligations, Nelson himself would have come to speak at Drew on April 14, 1970 to kick off the week leading up to what was soon to be dubbed Earth Day. 

Even in Nelson’s absence, Drew’s community came together to celebrate for the entire week before the 22nd. The Drew Environment Committee was organized to help plan Earth Day events both on campus and in the Madison area. Other organizations such as the Sloop Group, a branch of the larger Hudson River Sloop Group, pitched in by booking a benefit concert with nationally recognized musician and conservationist Pete Seeger. Seeger agreed to perform free of charge so that the $3 admissions fee from each attendee could be donated to on-campus research about how individuals can minimize pollution. Seeger also served as the keynote speaker for the event. 

Leading up to the 22nd, over a week’s worth of student, staff and government-sponsored events took place across campus. Talks were provided by government officials such as New Jersey State Assemblyman Thomas Kean (the future university president), New Jersey Democratic Congressman Robert A. Roe and New Jersey Republican Senator Clifford Case. Most of these talks, according to an April 17, 1970 edition of the Acorn, focused on environmental policies that were in the works. 

 As the week continued, films were played in the university center, exhibits were set up by school librarians and a campus-wide forest cleanup was organized. By Earth Day, the newly formed Drew Environment Committee had over 100 members. 

According to the same April 17 edition of The Acorn, the group had three objectives for further action: “to carry out environment week, to take scientific and economic facts of pollution to local communities, and to encourage conservation work.” 

A clipping from The Acorn, April 1970, celebrating the end of trash incineration practices on campus!

The spirit of activism and community service was in the air, in much the same way that it had been across the nation. Over the month of April, many students published pieces about their environmental concerns in The Acorn. An era of good feelings was ushered in as the EPA was created and several acts regarding environmental protection were passed. Students at Drew continued to push for environmental protection and conservation following this string of successes. Nelson’s desire to put education at the forefront of the movement was also met with success. 

 Over the next few years, although not celebrated to such large capacities as in 1970, Earth Day continued at Drew. By the 1980s, Drew Environmental Action League had taken over planning Earth Day celebrations. According to an advert in the April 15, 1983 edition of The Acorn, the Earth Day festivities would include “letter writing campaigns on pertinent environmental legislation. There will also be several speakers, continuous classical and folk music, and a natural foods bake sale.”

As documented in the April 27, 1990 edition of The Acorn, Drew Environmental Action League celebrated the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in Brothers College’s courtyard complete with more live music from bands like The Zen Tricksters and The Gooney Birds. 

Attended by 300-400 people, the event also featured the Raptor Trust, which brought a live owl to meet students and was supplied with ice cream donated by Ben and Jerry’s at no cost. Dozens of Madison residents also attended, allowing for unification of both on and off-campus communities. 

A speaker from Maine’s EPA spoke on how environmental issues have evolved and shifted focus since the first Earth Day, encouraging everyday citizens to remember the power they held as a constituency. A similar celebration was held in 1995 to celebrate the 25th anniversary. Three years later in 1998, Drew’s Fern Fest was held for the very first time, giving students the opportunity to physically give back to their environment.

Today, after the COVID-19 pandemic, Earth Day looks a little different. As it was bouncing back last year, students on campus witnessed a variety of events such as invasive plant removal, film screenings, presentations from local environmental groups and forest bathing. During the next two weeks leading up to April 22, Drew’s Sustainability Committee is hosting “Drew It In The Dark,” an energy saving competition, to help get students in the mood for environmental discussions while making a real-world impact. For more information about Drew’s Sustainability Committee programming, students can visit their Instagram @drewsustainability. Hopefully, students are looking forward to this year’s Earth Day. Happy Earth Day, folks, and remember to tune in to support our on-campus organizations and save our planet.

Jocelyn Freeman is a sophomore majoring in history, English and Chinese.

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