Skip to main content

Northwestern's Role in the First Earth Day

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, conceived by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson as a way to engage and unite Americans in greater awareness of environmental issues. A series of nationwide “teach-ins” characterized the first Earth Day, held April 22, 1970. At that time, climate change and sustainability were not yet part of the lexicon but concern for the environment was building. Northwestern hosted the first teach-in, establishing a model for the day that has become synonymous with the environmental movement. Project Survival, as it was called, was held on January 23, 1970.

Project Survival was organized by Northwestern Students for a Better Environment (now known as SEED), and according to the press release was intended to “answer questions on the most important issue facing mankind: the survival of the human species in an increasingly degraded environment.” Held at the Tech Institute from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., the event featured prominent speakers, lectures, films, and singing performances. Many of the topics covered, such as the depletion of natural resources, the health of Lake Michigan, and the impact of air pollution on public health, still resonate today.

The event is well documented by Northwestern University Archives, with artifacts, press clippings and recordings from the event. “Northwestern University Archives holds a mission to collect a document the records of the institution and of its student organizations,” said Kevin Leonard, University Archivist. “Among its most prized collections is that of Northwestern Students for a Better Environment.  That organization sponsored in 1970, predating even the first Earth Day, one of the most remarkable and consequential programs of the modern environmentalist movement:  Project Survival,” said Leonard. Explore the Project Survival archives page, particularly the newly digitized recordings of the event, to experience a bit of this Northwestern history.

Concern for the environment and the impacts of climate change continue to occupy our interest. While Earth Day will be celebrated differently this year, with our community working and studying from home, the spirit of the original day is woven throughout sustainNU’s Virtual Earth Month. Please join us in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by learning, engaging, and connecting in support of our environment. Check out the full schedule for Earth Month 2020.