On Earth Day 2021, ‘a complicated dance between hope and despair’

Environmentalist Tia Nelson, daughter of Earth Day’s founder, reflects on what it will take to save the planet

On Thursday, the 51st anniversary of the first annual Earth Day on April 22, 1970, Tia Nelson will be speaking to a classroom full of fourth graders in the school named after her father in the town of Clear Lake, Wisconsin. That’s where Earth Day founder, Wisconsin governor and U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson grew up. 

“Helping kids find their voice and giving them a sense of agency,” says Nelson, “helping them understand that my dad was just a little boy from a little town and he grew up to make a really big difference — and they can, too — I figure at this point in my life that’s probably the most important job I’ve got.”

On the first Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson decared: “I don’t think there’s any other issue, viewed in its broadest sense, which is as critical to mankind as the issue of the environment in which we live.”

His daughter has dedicated her life to carrying on his legacy, serving in leadership roles with The Nature Conservancy, as executive secretary of the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (where she endured attacks from Republicans during the administration of former Gov. Scott Walker for daring to utter the words “climate change”) and, most recently, managing the climate program at the Outrider Foundation. 

Gaylord Nelson’s original call to action, Tia Nelson points out, was multi generational, bipartisan, and broadly inclusive. “There was a very strong social justice element that, regrettably, the environmental community was slow to embrace.”

Nelson keeps a copy of her father’s speech given in Denver on April 22, 1970, in which he described ecology as a “big science”:

“Environment is all of America and it’s problems,” he declared. “It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.”

Gaylord Nelson’s broad, optimistic vision shines through in that speech. “Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty,” he says. “The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.”

Today, taking stock, Tia Nelson says, “I’m in a complicated dance between hope and despair.” Looking back, she sees the many missed opportunities in a history that includes President Richard Nixon signing the Clean Air Act, followed by the more recent descent into toxic partisanship that has made conservatives who believe in conservation an endangered species. But Nelson is encouraged by the dramatic growth of the environmental movement and a consensus among young people, regardless of political affiliation, that climate change is the most urgent problem we confront. 

“Youth, regardless of political ideology, consider climate change a priority,” Nelson says. “That is going to change what happens in Washington, and what happens in our statehouses. I see that happening now.”

“I think it’s really critical for us, especially in these hyper partisan times, to think about how we build bridges,” she adds. “I’m not interested in speaking to the choir. I’m interested in growing the congregation.”

To that end, through the Outrider Foundation, Nelson helped make a film last year called When the Earth Moves to tell “the authentic story and original vision of Earth Day as a bipartisan and socially just environmental movement” and to highlight “the need for people across generations and on both sides of the political aisle to play an active part.”  

Former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis, from South Carolina, appears in the film describing how he came to understand that climate change is real. His climate conversion was a three-step process, he explains. First, his son told him that he wouldn’t vote for him unless he came to grips with the climate crisis. Then he visited Antarctica, where he heard from scientists and saw the effects of climate change on the ice. Then he travelled to the Great Barrier Reef, where he met an Australian climate scientist whose determination to save the reef impressed and inspired him. After Inglis returned to Washington and spoke out on the issue he was defeated in a primary challenge in 2010. 

He and Tia Nelson have become good friends. “He’s one of my heroes. We’ve become quite close since we made the film,” Nelson says. They share a belief that, despite the challenges,  it’s possible to build a bipartisan movement. 

“Bob Inglis speaks to an audience that I can’t speak to,” Nelson says. “And that’s a beautiful thing, because we need to build the social capital and political will to address the greatest environmental challenge that humans have ever faced. And to do that we need to build bridges.”

Another friend of Nelson’s is baseball player Brent Suter, an Outriders “climate change ambassador” whose Twitter profile describes him as “Husband, Human and Dog Father, Jesus Follower, and Tree Hugger. Pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers.”

In the last year,  the global pandemic has underscored humanity’s interconnectedness. In the same way, when it comes to the environment, “There is no us-versus-them,” she says. “We are all in the same boat, whether it’s in coming up with an effective response to COVID or an effective response to climate change, it can’t be done without collaboration and cooperation, and seeing ourselves as a member of a larger community that knows no geographic boundaries.”

It’s been a tough year for Nelson, who recently lost her mother. Taking time off from her work to care for her mother gave her a chance to appreciate her family’s resilience and to reflect on her own dance with hope and despair. 

Last year around the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, she says, was a difficult period for her mother. “I was really struggling,” she says. Despair was knocking on the door. “And my mom, in her wisdom, even at age 98, said, ‘Listen, you get up in the morning, align your actions with your values, you do what you can with what you have.’”

That helped. 

Even facing looming climate doom, Nelson believes in the power of small actions. Never mind Al Gore’s assertion in An Inconvenient Truth that it’s too late to hope that switching to energy efficient light bulbs will make a difference. “Living your values matters,” Nelson says, “because it creates a societal norm.”

She points to Ladybird Johnson’s “Beautify America” campaign. Before that, “people thought nothing of throwing trash out the window. Nobody would do that today.”

It’s still important to act prudently and, she says, and conservatively. “I mean, the word conservation comes from conserve. To be a really good conservative means you’re not wasting stuff. And that matters. It’s not enough, but it’s an important part of the equation.”

As part of her mission to do outreach to kids, Nelson did the voice-over for a charming four-minute animated PBS documentary about her father. In it, she describes how her dad, the boy from Clear Lake, became a U.S. senator. When he got to Washington, she says, “he found out that others in government just didn’t seem to care about the environment as much as he did.” Devastated by an oil spill, he decided to hold a nationwide teach-in on the environment, based on the anti-war teach-ins that were galvanizing the student movement against the war in Vietnam. Earth Day helped launch the global environmental movement. 

“My father’s story is quite remarkable,” Nelson says. “He was a little boy from a little town with a really big dream and that dream came true beyond his wildest imagination.”

“Earth Day endures today as a critical part of his legacy, something that he never would have anticipated,” she adds. “Twenty million people gathered for the largest event in American history. And it changed the course of history.”

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner, which first published this essay.

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