Skip to main content

Fifty years ago, Northwestern set the Earth Day standard

Evanston Review headline, January 26, 1970

Evanston Review, Jan. 26, 1970

Even before national activists could stage the first Earth Day in April 1970, Northwestern students and faculty led the way in pushing environmentalism into the public discourse.

On January 23,1970, the University was host to an all-night colloquium that created a template for the Earth Day Project Survival program coverevents that would follow. The “teach-out” — an inversion of the “sit-ins” and “teach-ins” popular on campuses during the Vietnam War — was known as Project Survival, and was designed to give attendees a crash-course in the most pressing environmental issues of the day, a lengthy list of concerns from depletion of natural resources and Lake Michigan pollution to over-population and nuclear power.

A description of the gathering 50 years ago uses language that could have been written today; participants were to tackle “the most important issue facing mankind: the survival of the human species in an increasingly degraded environment,” according to a press release.

Organized by a group of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates known as Northwestern Students for a Better Environment, Project Survival featured nationally known scientists and political leaders leading seminars, speeches, workshops, films, and even a little folk singing from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. the next day.

Press release excerpt

Read a press release announcing the ambitious schedule of the event.


Daily Northwestern clipping

Newspaper clippings of the event include a sizable follow-up in the Daily Northwestern, the Evanston Review and a long list of national news outlets.

Notable guests and lecturers included Illinois Lt. Gov. Paul Simon, folk singer Tom Paxton and then-Illinois State Treasurer Adlai Stevenson III, who said in his remarks, “If we don’t go out with a bang or a whimper, it may be a cough.”

Organizers expected as many as 10,000 attendees, though later news reports estimated between 4,000 to 5,000 people. The true number may be hard to guess, as the decentralized series of events centered on the large lecture hall of the Technological Institute but spilled into rooms and hallways for scheduled breakouts and impromptu sessions.

Thirty years later, in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Northwestern public relations writer James Sweet recalled that “All the TV cameras in town were focused on the podium… Gas-guzzling cars of the pre-OPEC era jammed the lakeside parking lot behind Tech. This was the big event of the week in Chicago.”

The Project Survival archives (part of the NSBE records) are held in the McCormick Library of Special Collections and University Archives. They comprise documents, pamphlets and film of the first five hours of the event (the introductions, all nine featured speakers, and Paxton’s musical interlude). Some of the footage is accessible only to the Northwestern community; contact an archivist to learn more.