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Earth Day's Legacy in the Hudson Valley

by: Heather Adams

Gaylord Nelson, Wisconsin politician, environmentalist and founder of Earth Day

On April 22, 1970, Vassar College students joined universities across the United States for a nationally publicized teach-in, being dubbed “Earth Day.” Vassar College would be hosting three days worth of education on the negative environmental impacts that the United States had been taking over the previous decades. Promoted by senator Gaylord Nelson and Congressman Paul McClosky, the first ever Earth Day teach-in at Vassar College was slated to include everything from documentaries on the Connecticut River to speakers on environmental policy. The Protect Your Environment chapter at Vassar College, invited students, staff, and local community members to attend the three day event, with the hope of garnering enough support in “relearning how to live” so as not to be “condemned to die.”(1)


In the decades leading up to April 22, 1970, consumerism in the United States was taking

over the lives of Americans while the natural world took the brunt of the negative consequences.

Peretz Partensky, General Electric Co. (GE) dredging PCBs on Hudson River (photo), May 12,2012, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ifl/7238186516/.

It was not until the early 1960s that concern for living beings other than humans started to be seriously questioned; particularly after the release of the 1962 book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.(2) In 1969, Wisconsin Senator, Gaylord Nelson, set out to begin a once in a lifetime achievement. Following the student mobilization in antiwar protests, Nelson sought to promote a similar “better way to live” campaign inspired by environmental change. So, in the fall of 1969 Nelson announced a nationwide teach-in on environmental policy to be held in the spring of 1970.(3) Poughkeepsie, New York’s Vassar College was one of over 1,500 universities nationwide that participated in the inaugural Earth Day celebration emphasizing the impact of consumerism on the local environment.


April 22, 2022 will be the fifty-second annual recognition of Gaylord Nelson’s Earth Day teach-in. Though now Earth Day is perhaps not celebrated by anything more than just making coffee filter paintings of Earth or a schoolwide tree dedication, the first ever Earth Day was quite significant in developing environmental policy. The United States saw the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as the approval of several environmentally conscious bills after the massive turn out for the 1970 Earth Day teach-ins.(4) For the Hudson Valley, the

Earth Day Demonstration in Washington D.C., April 22, 1970

encouragement of Earth Day from universities like Vassar College, the historic United States region benefited from the funding provided by the– then new– Environmental Protection Agency. For several decades advocates of the Hudson River’s environmental protection have fought to get the level of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) down. The toxic chemical was dumped into the river between the years 1947 and 1977 by General Electric (GE) and wreaked havoc on the natural environment.(5) However as of 2019, reports of the decades-long efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency showed promising results of PCB levels on the decline. The improving health of the Hudson River is proof that even fifty-two years later, the environmental advocacy that was inspired by Nelson’s original Earth Day teach-ins still holds a significant role in the daily lives of Americans.

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1. Charleen Kress, “Man Must Relearn to Live or Be Condemned to Die PYE & Earth Day at Vassar College,” The Miscellany 54, no. 19 (April 17, 1970): 6.
2. “History of Earth Day: The Origins of Earth Day,” Earth Day, accessed April 11, 2022, https://www.earthday.org/history/.
3. Adam Rome. "The Genius of EARTH DAY," Environmental History 15, no. 2 (04, 2010): 194-205. www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/genius-earth-day/docview/750494703/se-2?accountid=12761.
4. “History of Earth Day: The Idea for the First Earth Day,” Earth Day, accessed April 11, 2022, https://www.earthday.org/history/.
5. “Hudson River PCB Dredging Project: Dredging is Working,” Hudson Dredging, accessed April 12, 2022, https://hudsondredging.com/river-dredging/ge-completes-dredging.
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