Original Earth Day organizers come together 50 years later


Six former members of the U-M student organization that established the original Teach-In on the Environment in 1970 reconvened 50 years later March 11 to discuss how history can inform the environmental movement going forward.

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While much of the discussion focused on how the original event coalesced — in terms of outreach, fundraising and bringing people together in a pre-social media era — panelists took time to discuss the legacy of that teach-in against the backdrop of the immense work to be done on environmental issues.

“We carried off the teach-in. We carried off many things in our lives since, but the big failure in society is still there and is going to be there for some time,” said Arthur Hanson, an ecologist and professor, and former president of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. “This is a long-term game.”

Panelist David Allan (second from left) and Arthur Hanson share a laugh during the panel discussion. (Photo by Dave Brenner, School for Environment and Sustainability)

The original 1970 teach-in was organized by Environmental Action for Survival — known as ENACT — and formed a model for the first Earth Day five weeks later. The teach-in began with a “trial” and the sledgehammer “execution” of a 1959 Ford automobile, and culminated with a 50,000-person event at Crisler Arena.

Participants included then-Michigan Gov. William Milliken, the heads of Dow Chemical Co. and General Motors Corp., consumer activist Ralph Nader, folk-rock star Gordon Lightfoot, the Chicago cast of the rock musical “Hair,” and other environmental, political and cultural figures.

The organizers’ reunion panel was livestreamed from the Samuel T. Dana Building. Besides Hanson, it included:

  • Doug Scott, career strategist and a conservation and environmental lobbyist. Scott co-chaired the group that organized the ENACT Teach-In on the Environment.
  • David Allan, U-M professor emeritus of conservation biology and ecosystem management and former acting dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment, the predecessor of the School for Environment and Sustainability. Allan was a founding member of ENACT.
  • Elizabeth Grant Kingwill, mental health counselor and former board member of the local Sierra Club chapter. She served as ENACT chair of community relations.
  • George Koling, occupational health and environmental justice advocate, and formerly one of the founders of the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor.
  • Barbara Alexander, consumer affairs consultant and former midwestern coordinator for the first Earth Day in April 1970.
  • Moderator Matt Lassiter, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of history and associate professor of urban and regional planning.

Alexander pointed to disinformation on social media, the hollowing out of local news, growing income inequality and an emerging rural-urban divide as key challenges going forward.

“I think there are new opportunities,” Alexander said. “Our young people need to come to grips with these issues in a way that, frankly, we had a lot of advantages given to us to adopt all of these reforms in the 1970s.”

From left, panelists George Koling, Elizabeth Grant Kingwill, Doug Scott, David Allan, Arthur Hanson and Barbara Alexander pose with the emblem from the original 1970 Teach-In on the Environment. (Photo by Dave Brenner, School for Environment and Sustainability)

The event was preceded by a teach-in where current youth and student activists compared strategies with activists from years past.

Panelists discussed how climate change and environmental justice are intertwined with various social justice issues. One takeaway: how current youth activists have added a necessary sense of emergency to the environmental discussion. One panelist noted that that urgency needs to be complemented by consensus on action.

The panels are part of U-M’s ongoing commemoration of Earth Day at 50, which notes the history of the environmental movement at U-M while elevating the need to address climate change through a community-driven, multidisciplinary effort.

While most Earth Day at 50 events have been canceled as part of the university’s response to the spreading threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus, organizers are looking to elevate prominent topics, events and speakers either through remote sessions or at later dates.

Watch a video of the panel discussion.


  1. Deborah Holdship
    on April 13, 2020 at 12:55 pm

    I just wanted to congratulate the “Give Earth a Chance” Group for their foresight and commitment to addressing the planet threatening Anthropogenic Climate Change Crisis.

    Ironically, as an old car nut, when I graduated with an Industrial Engineering degree, I thought I was going to work in the automobile industry but wound up in the air quality industry.

    Starting my career in my native Canada, I was actually transferreI by my company to Southern California and lived there for 30 years. Leaving the corporate environment, and entering the Consulting Engineering world, I had numerous assignments seeking to reduce or eliminate air pollutants.

    And I am quietly proud to report that in every case, we definitely improved employee turnover rates, and employee health related absenteeism, and we more often than not improved the bottom lines of the polluters.

    Pollution does not pay.

    In one case that I’m particularly proud I was in assignment to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, (SCAQMD), in Diamond Bar California, to help the coatings industry adapt to, and find alternatives for, the regulatory requirements to eliminate VOCs from all the oil based coatings.

    The SCAQMD rule, when passed, gave them five years to find an alternative, and while a few of the industry initially screamed that this was not possible, in Y4, a small lab in Northern California developed what we believe was the worlds first water based coatings.

    In effect we accomplished achieving zero VOC emissions in all coatings in the furniture manufacturing industry, automobile painting and architectural applications.

    Conclusion of my decades of experience? Today, ZERO Emissions is all we should ever accept.

    I now live in “Friends of Coal Country”, West Virginia, which I referred to in my talks about Climate Change as the “Epicenter of Climate Denial”.

    Drawing on my experience as early as the 1980s in the design of both PV and CSP solar systems, I am a strong advocate that the entire country should be transitioning as fast as possible towards solar energy. And not just as power plant replacement arrays, but on every flat or south facing roof. The sun delivers enough energy to the planet earth in one day to power the planet for a year. We just need to commit to capturing that “free fuel” source of energy.

    Why? It is according to the US Department of Labor, currently the fastest job creating sector, by a factor of 17 compared to whoever’s in second place.

    And I’ve gone even further. With two other engineers, we have developed a disruptive alternative advanced materials solution to go on board the worlds airlines that will reduce their carbon footprint. With a group of 15 “Friends and Family“ angel investors, we raised just shy of $1.0 million to develop this innovation at a NASA Certified Advanced Materials lab and are currently looking for a second round of funding to achieve the necessary FAA certifications and enter the global market.

    Sadly we have given up trying to establish our aircraft quality composites manufacturing operation here in the US, so we are looking north of the border where the attitude towards encouraging any manufacturing company that’s addressing climate change is very positive, and complete with significant grants up to 65% of the necessary capital. We are also quite attractive to them, as we intend to operate this 72,000 square-foot manufacturing plant completely on solar power.

    One very large cargo airline determined that replacing their existing system with ours, they would reduce the carbon footprint of their Boeing 767-300 ER‘s freighters by 3100 tons of GHGs per plane per year, saving them 265,000 gallons of fuel per plane per year.

    So again my congratulations to the Group, and know that this Michigan Engineer is still, at 87, with his hands on the ground speaking out and raising hell about the Critical Action we all must take to reverse the Anthropogenic Climate Change Crisis.

    Charleston WV

    Allan Tweddle BSE, MBA.
    Founder & Chairman
    CTTC Ltd.

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