1970 : University of Michigan Holds Environmental Teach-In

March 11, 2018 all-day

March 11-14, 1970

The original Teach-in against the Vietnam War inspired subsequent events, like this 1970 gathering on behalf of the environment in 1970. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Photo of Teach-In on the Environment at the University of Michigan in 1970.

Before the internet, one of the main ways to mobilize public opinion on campuses was to have teach-ins. The University of Michigan pioneered the way back in 1965 with the first teach-in against the Vietnam War. But they would go on to have many more teach-ins on other topics as well, including the environment.

The environmental movement had taken root as far back as the nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth that it truly began to flower. Environmental awareness built slowly but steadily throughout the fifties and sixties, and then all at once exploded in 1969 following a series of high-profile environmental disasters – a huge oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, Lake Erie being proclaimed “dead,” and Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catching fire (again), among others. Ecologists who had for years been fighting to get their concerns about the environment into the national spotlight suddenly found their voices being heard.

One of the most powerful of those voices was that of U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. In September 1969 Nelson announced his idea for a nationwide protest against the degradation of the environment. Following the lead of the anti-war movement, he proposed a massive series of teach-ins to take place on college campuses the following spring, intended to make Americans more aware of the deadly seriousness of the multitude of threats then facing the environment. (The majority of which, sad to say, are still with us nearly forty years later.)

Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was hoping to encourage colleges and university across the country to mobilize for the Environment on April 22, 1970 (later to become Earth Day) across the country, largely because that date fell optimally between spring break and final exams for most American colleges. But the University of Michigan operated then as now on a trimester system, with April 22 falling right in the middle of finals. As a result, student groups such as Environmental Action for Survival, or ENACT, and other interested parties decided to move up the event to mid-March (March 11-14).

The “ENACT Teach-In on the Environment,” as it was officially titled, was a staggering success, attracting more people and attention than anyone could have imagined. An estimated 50,000 attendees were drawn to the more than 125 seminars, speeches, workshops, panels, symposia, debates, forums, rallies, demonstrations, films, field trips, concerts, and colloquia that unfolded over five days at locations on campus and all around town. “There’d never been anything like this,” says John Russell, a teacher at Pioneer High who sat on the ENACT steering committee. “We had sessions where we were shutting the doors and turning people away.”

A popular button made by U-M student activists to promote their March 1970 teach-in and its tie-in to Earth Day. (Courtesy of John Russell) (Image courtesy of Ann Arbor Chronicle article.)

Events ran from the early morning until well after midnight, on topics such as overpopulation – “Sock It to Motherhood: Make Love, Not Babies” – the future of the Great Lakes, the root causes of the ecological crisis, and the effect of war on the environment. More than sixty major media outlets covered the action, including all three American television networks and a film crew from Japan. It was the biggest such event that had yet been seen in Ann Arbor – and coming as it did at the tail end of the sixties, it would be one of the last.

At the kickoff rally around 14,000 people paid fifty cents to crowd into Crisler Arena and listen to speeches by Senator Gaylord Nelson, Michigan governor William Milliken, radio personality Arthur Godfrey, and ecologist Barry Commoner, and groove to the music of Hair and Gordon Lightfoot. Another 3,000 who couldn’t get in listened on loudspeakers that were hastily set up in the parking lot.

Other events from the teach-in which stand out today include the driving of an all-electric car by Godfrey from Detroit to Ann Arbor at posted speeds on I-94; a panel at Pioneer High attended by 4,000 in which Dow Chemical president Ted Doan was mercilessly heckled but stood his ground, earning a measure of grudging respect from the crowd; the demolition of a broken-down old car on the U-M Diag by a crowd of sledgehammer-wielding students; and provocative speeches by Ralph Nader, environmental lawyer Victor “Sue the Bastards!” Yannacone, and radical ecologist Murray Bookchin, among others.

And then, after five days of almost non-stop activity and little sleep, it was over. Organizers were left feeling both elated and mournful. “A couple of us were clearing out the office when Luther Carter from Science magazine walked in,” remembers Doug Scott. “He remarked, almost in passing, that neither of us would ever again organize anything reaching that scale. For some reason, that really struck home.”

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