PAW’s cover from May 5, 1970, showing Nassau Street shut down for the first Earth Day.

We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation.
— Barry Commoner, 1970

Princeton, in the decade or so preceding March 5, 1970, while engaged in establishing a legitimate presence as a university of global standing, had among many other initiatives under young president Robert Goheen ’40 *48 opened its halls and auditoria to a range of outside speakers whose very presence was of possible concern to the forces of order and decorum on campus. Just a few we’ve previously noted were new prime minister Fidel Castro of Cuba, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi, President Lyndon Johnson (speaking about Vietnam in May 1966 at the dedication of the new Robertson Hall), and governor George Wallace of Alabama during the 1968 presidential campaign. Since the historical roles of each of these are still under discussion six decades later, it remains endlessly fascinating that the biggest campus brouhaha (by far) triggered then by an outside speaker belonged to the legendary Wally Hickel, the secretary of (wait for it …) the U.S. Department of the Interior. .S. Department of the Interior. 

Hickel, previously the governor of Alaska, had been dragged to Washington in 1969 by President Richard Nixon as a vague part of an effort to grab the ecology issue for the Republicans. This was a semi-desperate move to deflect mounting concern over their inability to solve Vietnam, a full four years after LBJ had publicly shown his concern over the war, eventually proven fruitless. And while Big Oil still lurked with few checks and balances (despite a horrendous tanker disaster off the Santa Barbara coast in 1969, the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline had recently been approved), under Hickel a number of other measures had been initiated on a bipartisan basis that pointed toward widespread efforts for cleaner air and water, and transparency in the food chain. Stuart Udall of Arizona as Interior Secretary under JFK and LBJ had grabbed the initiative from Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring in 1962, and in the Space Race age when the science was not politicized, the Republicans following had seen the environment’s potential. So Hickel was the headliner at the University’s prestigious “Ecology and Politics in America’s Environmental Crisis” conference, which brought together a who’s who of political, faculty and industrial bigwigs, all formally supporting ecological initiatives. But the campus SDS and other anti-war activists, plus some ecological extremists, about 75 in total, drowned out Hickel’s March 5 address to 2,000 people at Jadwin (which included a number of thoughtful ideas and praise for the environmentalists) and set themselves up as initial subjects of the newly revamped campus disciplinary process. Fourteen hundred students signed a letter of apology to the secretary. So among Hickel, the demonstrators, the audience, and the environment, Vietnam claimed yet more collateral casualties.

That was seven weeks before the very first Earth Day. In this fraught atmosphere, after a year of massive political unrest across the country, it was astounding anybody at all paid attention.

But in a tribute to the seriousness of the multiple ecology issues involved, the skills of those on a national level trying to marshal support for what they hoped would become a grassroots movement, and some dogged local work by organizers in both the University and the town who were genuinely alarmed — a wise environmental attitude in 1960s New Jersey — it came off as something memorable, but even more as something that had legs and continues to this day in initiatives large and small, from the University’s long-range plans to go carbon neutral by 2046 to huge water stations replacing plastic bottles at the P-rade.

The national Earth Day committee (intriguingly, the name came from an ad agency) had done some extremely insightful spadework for the planned April 22, 1970, event by recognizing battle fatigue on campuses, which had been holding anti-war teach-ins since as early as 1964 and civil rights demonstrations even earlier. The need to change focus brought in local organizers and incorporated microclimate issues at the very beginning, and the vision broadened to one involving K-12 schools, town managers and zoning boards, and a striking range of businesses beyond what you’d expect. They also enlisted organized labor very early on the logic that the working man or woman would profit first from clean air and water, and the Auto Workers’ Walter Reuther became in essence the banker of the movement.

So while the efforts on the Princeton campus, spearheaded by the pre-existing student/faculty group Ecology Action, continued to involve a university’s strong suit — i.e. people who could think deep thoughts and pontificate upon them — a striking array of activities began to gather around the Wednesday event until the Princeton community as a whole declared a surrounding Earth Week, comprising an array of efforts in which anyone who wished could find an active and (ideally) personally meaningful and memorable role. Starting the Sunday prior, groups all over town began cleaning up streams, roads, lots, whatever, and the University chipped in simply by allowing all the detritus to be piled on Cannon Green before it was hauled away, an image tying the improvement of the future to the rituals of the past. Ralph Nader ’55, very appropriately, got a day all to himself. There was a slogan contest, with a $500 first prize (undergrad tuition was $2,500/year). An intriguing film festival highlighted various ways in which human intervention was destroying the natural environment. There were 15 separate workshops on how to best go about local cleanup and get politically or scientifically active (at which there was some disagreement among veterans of both), mixed media arts exhibitions, and a “Rite of Celebration for Planet Earth” in the Chapel. And for four hours, for the first time anybody could remember, Nassau Street was turned into a festive pedestrian mall allowing views of the campus and stores no one had ever seen, never mind the unnerving quiet. A picture of it ran on the cover of PAW.

With the workshops on Earth Day covering the nuts and bolts to a fare-thee-well, the programming design for those who wanted to think strategically became an ironically similar all-star event to the ill-fated conference of the prior month, just with a public audience. And to show the eclectic nature of the national awareness and concern over the environment — which, recall, had been essentially nothing eight years before — consider the panelists for the very healthy three-hourpublic session on “The Uses and Abuses of Our Natural Environment.” The moderator was Clifford Case, as close to a nonpartisan senator as New Jersey has ever had, and the panelists were Gary Soucie, one of the recent founders of Friends of the Earth; Richard Falk, the great Princeton professor of law and internationalist; Richard Sullivan, environmentalist in his first day as head of New Jersey’s new Department of Environmental Protection, only the third in the country; Gordon MacDonald, who had been an environmental scientist almost before such a thing existed, contributing to White House white papers in the mid-’60s, and a member of President Nixon’s brand-new Council on Environmental Quality; Laurance Rockefeller ’32, University trustee and friend of National Parks everywhere, one of the best known supporters of ecological causes in the country; and Najeeb Halaby, president of Pan American airlines and former administrator of the FAA. The comments during the session were encyclopedic, ranging from mixed reactions to the proposed American Supersonic Transit passenger jet (which never happened), to disagreement on the need for political pressure to get any movement from industry, to the need for national governments to be essentially replaced to enable serious progress (always one of Falk’s favorites). Case noted the disproportion between federal spending on the environment vs. defense. Rockefeller, who had been with the cause for years, made sage remarks about the inevitable need for both cooperation and confrontation. More concerning was the turnout in commodious Dillon Gym, only about 600, fewer than half of whom appeared to be students. This was only a third of those who had turned up in March to not hear Wally Hickel; there was suspicion that issue fatigue (i.e. the war) had reared its ugly head yet again.

The validity of that first Earth Day, in Princeton and nationally, has long since been proven, both immediately — five departments and Stevenson Hall announced various environmental courses for the fall of 1970 — and continuingly, as today’s robust environmental activities involving town and gown together illustrate. But it also jarringly shows the fragility of such beneficent causes in a dangerous world. One week after Earth Day, on April 29, 1970, Nixon invaded Cambodia. It did indeed lead to the largest concentrated outpouring of volunteerism and activism ever seen at Princeton, but precisely none of it related to the environment. Meanwhile, in Washington, Wally Hickel took time out from his daily tussle with Big Oil; after the May 4 killings at Kent State, he wrote a letter to Nixon (perhaps envisioning the Hickel Hecklers?) contending the administration was ignoring the concerns and interests of its young people, especially in its conduct of the war. Nixon fired him.