The First Earth Day

Before Al Gore and global warming, climate accords and a carbon tax — even before the first Earth Day — Northwestern pushed the agenda on environmental issues.

Nearly 40 years ago Northwestern Students for a Better Environment hosted Project Survival, the first major national event to explore the growing environmental crisis. The event, a public "teach-out" on pollution and other environmental issues, was held at the Technological Institute on Jan. 23-24, 1970, three months before the first Earth Day.

The University will commemorate the 40th anniversary of Project Survival as part of the One Book One Northwestern programming, a collection of student events, discussions and exhibits hosted by the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern. This year's book, Thomas Friedman's (H05) Hot, Flat and Crowded, addresses issues of energy and sustainability.

Project Survival attracted more than 10,000 students and community members, according to Time magazine, and many of the attendees watched the events on closed-circuit television in the packed hallways of Tech. 

"I remember walking past the phone booth and hearing the guy from the Chicago Tribune calling his editor and saying, ‘We have to get more people and cameras out here,'" said Project Survival chair Jim Reisa (G71, 72), then an environmental biology graduate student who chaired NSBE and now director of environmental studies and toxicology for the National Academy of Sciences.

The first prelude in a series of pre-Earth Day events across the country, Project Survival featured an all-night series of speeches — "state of earth addresses" — at the Technological Institute by noted academics, activists and politicians, including then-Illinois Lt. Gov. Paul Simon (H83) and then-Illinois State Treasurer Adlai Stevenson III. A series of early-morning study sessions covered topics such as overpopulation, depletion of natural resources and protecting Lake Michigan from pollution. At a midnight "sing-in," folk artist Tom Paxton premiered his song "Whose Garden Was This?" which became the Earth Day anthem.

The NSBE members who organized Project Survival are also planning a January reunion in Washington, D.C., to coincide with the event's 40th anniversary.

Read more from University Archives about NSBE and Project Survival.