Fifty years ago, on April 22, 1970, all eyes were on the East Coast. After witnessing the destruction caused by an enormous oil spill in Santa Barbara, then-U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin had conceived of a nationwide day of action around environmental issues—though they weren’t called that yet. And it worked: on that day, an estimated 20 million people participated in events across the country. Some 100,000 New Yorkers took to the streets, and parts of Fifth Avenue were blocked off. Congress shut down, as many of its representatives spoke at events in their home states.
Still, while attention may have been focused to the east that first Earth Day, as we celebrate its 50th anniversary, it’s worth remembering the day’s Bay Area roots. A month beforehand, San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto issued the first-ever Earth Day proclamation on March 21, a date celebrated for many years after by the United Nations as “International Earth Day,” with the ringing of a peace bell. Earth Day itself was planned as a massive “teach-in,” styled on Vietnam War resistance honed in Berkeley and its surrounds. But perhaps even more notable—and certainly less conventional—were the events of February 1970 in San José.
Nelson was an alumnus of San José State University (then San José State College), and he encouraged students there to plan a series of teach-ins and protests, dubbed the “Survival Faire.” The fair included a room filled with smoke to simulate rising smog levels, a “population room” full of naked dolls packed like sardines, and exhibits featuring trash gathered from nearby fields and creeks. All this excitement came to a head in February, when students buried a Ford Maverick as a protest for what they called the “ecologically insane behavior” of the masses. The metaphorical funeral for cars and gasoline garnered national attention, an effective kickoff for the year that would soon see the birth of modern environmentalism.