A historical ‘Earth Day Project’

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, historian Anne Berg and students launch online exhibit looking back at the first event

People march along Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia on April 22, 1970 during Earth Day.
People march along Benjamin Franklin Parkway during Philadelphia’s first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. (Image: University Archives)

Fifty years ago, members of the Penn community organized Philadelphia’s very first Earth Day events, culminating on April 22, 1970. 

To mark this half-century anniversary, a team of student researchers has reconstructed the history of Earth Day at Penn in an online exhibit that launches tonight at 7 p.m. 

The Earth Day Project” highlights everything from biographical sketches of major activists to tracking how the events at Penn connected with Earth Day teach-ins across the country. It also puts Earth Week at Penn into the context of the political polarizations of the late 1960s, examining everything from its connections to the Civil Rights Movement, feminism and the anti-Vietnam War protests to its relations to the garbage crises of the late 1960s, the nuclear arms race, and the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” 

The goal is to look at that first Earth Day’s successes and failures in order to draw lessons and inspiration in the context of the current climate emergency, historian Anne Berg says.

Berg directed the team of seven students, who started the project earlier this semester as part of Berg’s “Wastes of War” seminar. The class met at the University Archives before Spring Break to learn of research opportunities there, but had to transition the work online when campus closed over the coronavirus pandemic. 

Acting University Archivist J.M. Duffin worked to quickly digitize Penn records so students could access them remotely, and the students and Berg met weekly over Zoom to discuss their findings. They also were able to conduct a Zoom interview with Austan Librach, one of the organizers of the first Earth Week at Penn. 

People walking in a park hold a banner reading "Earth Walk"
Marchers at Philadelphia’s original Earth Day, April 22, 1970. (Image: University Archives)
Four people sit on blankets on the grass, smiling.
Participants in Philadelphia’s first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. (Image: University Archives)
Participants in Philadelphia's first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. (Images: University Archives).

“It’s a bummer that we couldn’t go into the archives and sit there and puzzle over the documents together,” Berg says. “But the students did an amazing job, and we worked very collaboratively. Some of them are even remaining on as research fellows so we can keep the project going.” 

The exhibit seeks to understand how these dynamics played themselves out on Penn’s campus, how they fostered and fragmented alliances, and how they connected with or glossed over the concerns of Philadelphia residents, Berg says. 

“It’s intended to present a more nuanced history than a mere origin myth for modern-day environmentalism,” she says.

Cover of a newspaper highlighting Philadelphia's first Earth Day
Earth Week spread in the Daily Pennsylvanian, April 1970. (Image: University Archives)

The students pored over institutional records, consulted yearbooks, and sifted through local and national press coverage. 

Philadelphia’s first Earth Day was one of a number of celebrations across the nation on April 22, 1970, inspired by a U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson.

The Democrat from Wisconsin says that after reading Rachel Carson’s environmental science book “Silent Spring” he was compelled to send a message that immediate action was needed to protect the earth. He was inspired by the teach-ins during the Vietnam War and used the momentum from the ’60s on college campuses to help launch the Earth Day effort.

At Penn, students, primarily graduate students in what is now the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, led the charge to organize Philadelphia’s first Earth Day festivities. Ian McHarg, late professor emeritus of landscape architecture and urban planning, helped facilitate the effort, along with other faculty members. The Penn group joined forces with the city as well as other colleges and universities in the area to hold events for the entire week leading up to the first-ever Earth Day.

A crowd of 30,000 people sit on a lawn in a park in 1970
About 30,000 people crowded into Fairmount Park to hear speakers and performers. (Image: University Archives)

It culminated with a rally in Fairmount Park that brought more than 30,000 people to hear speakers like Ralph Nader, Allen Ginsberg, and U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, as well as live performances ranging from the original Broadway cast of the musical “Hair” to the Native American rock band Redbone, giving it a festival atmosphere.

Man with beard and glasses holds a daisy while being interviewed by student reporters in 1970
Poet Allen Ginsberg was among the speakers at Philadelphia’s first Earth Day celebration. (Image: University Archives)

“This was a happy moment, kind of a culminating moment for the ’60s which was so divisive and so polarizing, with many feeling that at least we can all agree on saving the earth,” Berg says. “It was fun for those activists, but for many others it wasn’t fun at all.”

Her students’ research has found that many Black activists didn’t feel they had a voice or that their concerns were taken seriously, she says, and the rhetoric about pollution seeped into the rhetoric about inner city problems, the war on drugs, and the war on crime.

“We’re poking holes into the original story,” she says.

“The first Earth Day concluded at 7 p.m. on April 22, 1970, and our critical historical contextualization of these events will go live at 7 p.m.—50 years later to the day—to draw attention to both continuities and discontents of modern environmental activism,” Berg says.