Give Earth a chance
The Environmental Action for Survival (ENACT) Teach-in on the U-M campus in March 1970 predated the first national Earth Day demonstration in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 1970. Undergraduate researchers working with the U-M History Labs Project produced an online exhibit titled ‘Give Earth a Chance.’ The project explores the burgeoning environmental movement on the U-M campus, in Ann Arbor, and across the nation some 50 years ago. U-M’s 2020 Teach-In for the Environment runs March 9-14; several of the original organizers will speak on the history and legacy of the movement. (Images courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)
Spreading the word
In October 1969, a small group of students intent on saving the environment formed Environmental Action for Survival Inc. (ENACT). As the first ENACT newsletter stated, “Man has so severely despoiled his natural environment that serious concern exists for his survival.” Quickly, the organization grew from a few students to hundreds of diverse volunteers, workers, faculty members, and – apparently — guitarists with fetching sideburns.
From A2 to D.C.
Soon after initial meetings at U-M in fall ’69, Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin issued a public call for a National Environmental Teach-In. Barbara Reid (second from right) graduated from U-M in 1968 and was working at the Conservation Foundation in Washington, D.C. She signed on as midwest coordinator at Environmental Teach-In Inc. and helped present the first national Earth Day in April 1970. (Reid recounts her experiences here.)
Be the first
U-M ran on a trimester system in 1970. This meant most students would be off-campus in April, which is when the national event was scheduled. Thus, ENACT held its teach-in March 11-14, serving as a prototype for the subsequent demonstration in Washington, D.C. ENACT co-chair David Allan, who returned to U-M as a professor in 1990, speaks about his experience in video interviews at the Give Earth a Chance website.
Never too early to get started
The official kick-off for the teach-in was on March 11, but events sponsored by ENACT began a day earlier. Panel discussions and symposia addressed environmental law, marine transport pollution, Canadian environmental problems, and “intellectual pollution,” to name a few.
Most ENACT leaders and presenters were male; two women served on the original steering committee of 15. Volunteer Elizabeth Grant (Kingwill) told contemporary interviewers she was “never one of the boys.” But while female students did not play prominent roles in the organization, women in non-student organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, did wield some influence.
ENACT co-chair Doug Scott (pictured here) and his partner David Allan soon realized they needed to take a sabbatical from their studies to dedicate themselves to the organization full time. The University gave fellowships to both students so they could work on the teach-in exclusively for the calendar year. (See Scott’s video interviews.)
Protest upon protest
With ENACT and the teach-in gaining increased attention on campus and in the media, members of the Black Student Union expressed frustration at being marginalized. Ed Fabre, leader of the Black Action Movement, was a last-minute addition to the event lineup. He demanded more black students be admitted to U-M and said “to many Americans, pollution is the bigotry, racism, and poverty in this country. The filth is not in our air but in our universities and legislatures.”
The official kick-off rally took place in Crisler Arena. More than 13,000 people filled the venue, paying 50 cents per ticket. The Chicago cast of the musical “Hair” performed for the crowd. Folk singer Gordon Lightfoot also entertained.
ENACT held a trial against “the car” at high noon on the first day of the teach-in. Witnesses testified on behalf of the automobile and against it. Upon review of the evidence, the judge found the “’four-wheeled monstrosity’ [was] guilty of the murder of the American public, crossing state lines to pollute, inciting traffic jams, creating physical and psychological dependence, and discriminating against the poor.”
Walk to me
University students and Ann Arbor citizens shared concerns with elected representatives and environmentalists while walking along the Huron River. By showing them the problem existed in their own backyard, they hoped to motivate citizens and policymakers to protect rivers like the Huron.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader lambasted industrial pollution as a form of “corporate violence.” He defended student radicals and argued that big business and its apologists and allies in government were responsible for the “laceration and destruction of society’s values,” not to mention contamination of the air and water.
More tree huggers
On April 22, 1970, Environmental Teach-In Inc. launched its events on 2,000 college campuses, in 2,000 communities, and in 10,000 high schools nationwide. An estimated 20 million people participated, making Earth Day the largest political demonstration to that point in U.S. history. To celebrate, these U-M students planted a tree on top of a car.
In his speech introducing Earth Day in April 1970, Wisconsin Sen. Nelson said: “Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is the hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing that is not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.” Environmental Action Inc. claimed pollution affected poor and minority communities with disproportional severity, a point BAM’s Ed Fabre had made a month earlier at U-M’s Teach-In for the Environment.
Gordon Binder - B.Arch 1971, Masters Archictecture 1972
Having heard and been inspired by a university wide session in which someone from the Earth Day organization gave a talk in the fall (?) of 1969 (it wasn’t Denis Hayes), I helped organize the Department of Architecture’s teach-in, before ED as I recall since our semester ended before the actual day.
Thanks to an alert from Department chairman, the late Bob Metcalf, I was able to get an internship at the new Council on Environmental Quality in DC, where I now live. That internship and the people, some of whom I’m still working with 50 years later, opened a career path in the environmental field including as Chief of Staff at US EPA, 1989-93. Forever grateful for the U-M experience.