Fifty Years Later, a Look Back at UT’s Inaugural Earth Day Celebration

The year was 1970. Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson had just proposed the nation’s first Earth Day, encouraging citizens to promote environmental awareness through grassroots demonstrations. It was a time before solar power was a viable option. Practical electric cars were years away. Americans were growing concerned about car emissions polluting the air and chemicals poisoning grain and livestock.

That’s the picture Suzanne O’Malley, BA ’74, paints for me on a recent Monday afternoon. Fifty years ago, she organized the first Earth Day event at The University of Texas at Austin. Today, Earth Day mobilizes 1 billion people each year across the globe. But back then, it was a brand new endeavor. “We weren’t building on anything,” she says.

O’Malley’s early efforts are a small blip on the timeline of her life, but they mark the starting point for UT’s environmental efforts. “1970 was the first year in modern times when masses of people began coming together to appreciate Earth and to understand that her bounty just might not be unlimited forever,” she says.

Prior to April 22, 1970, she’d read Silent Spring, the 1962 book by Rachel Carson that exposed environmental hazards of the insecticide DDT. She’d taken Environment 301, a course that introduced her to climate science. When Mademoiselle, a women’s magazine, encouraged students to host Earth Day events and write to them about it, the aspiring magazine writer and burgeoning activist put her feelings into action.

O’Malley purchased green cotton fabric and cut it into hundreds of armbands to hand out to students to spread awareness. She organized a table on the Main Mall where she and friends passed out flyers encouraging people to think about the importance of parks and the drawbacks of pesticides and car emissions.

Environmental activism was spreading around campus. Six months earlier was the Battle of Waller Creek, a conflict between students and administrators over the expansion of Memorial Stadium. Angered that the project involved removing large live oak and cypress trees lining Waller Creek, students protested, climbing up branches and standing between bulldozers and the trees set for demolition. Students were arrested, and several piled the remains of cut-down trees in front of the entrance to the Tower.

But the first Earth Day itself was pretty harmonious, as O’Malley recalls. Speakers addressed crowds on the Mall. Students participated in workshops on pollution and overpopulation, one of which was so full, people were turned away, according to the 1970 Cactus. People organized a tour of Waller Creek to demonstrate the negative impacts development can have on the natural environment. The Cactus stressed that attendees represented both sides of controversial campus issues like reproductive rights and life without cars. Indeed, the first Earth Day was a nonpartisan affair.

“It was not a contrarian event,” O’Malley says. “There wasn’t a divide.”

It’s safe to say the university has come a long way since Earth Day’s inception. When students celebrate on April 22, 2020, they’ll be doing so on a campus that has nearly all organic landscaping, 3.5 million square feet of LEED-certified green buildings, and runs on one of the most efficient power plants in the world.

In 2016, President Gregory L. Fenves unveiled UT’s first-ever Sustainability Master Plan, which outlines goals through 2030 that include implementing zero waste practices. Texas Athletics has its own sustainability program aimed at lessening landfill waste during games through increased recycling and composting. And when it comes to trees, UT has made major strides since the Battle of Waller Creek, and works to move healthy heritage trees when constructing new buildings like the Dell Medical School

While in the ’60s and ’70s pesticide usage and pollution catalyzed student activism, these days terms like climate change tend to drive efforts. UT offers majors like sustainability studies and environmental engineering, and full-time staff are dedicated to similar efforts on campus.

Leading up to Earth Day, students like environmental science junior Avery McKitrick advocate through tabling events and seminars. “Environmentalism is the most pressing issue of our generation,” says McKitrick, who is co-director of the Campus Environmental Center. “No other issues have this sort of time limit.”

UT’s Office of Sustainability will be holding events throughout April to honor the 50th anniversary, such as turning the Tower lights off for a day to promote energy conservation, putting on a zero-waste workshop, and cleaning up Waller Creek. “Earth Day was a wild idea 50 years ago to draw attention to these issues, and it has endured,” Director of UT’s Office of Sustainability Jim Walker says. “Like we were before the first Earth Day, we’re at another crescendo of interest that the environment needs us to care more than we have been.”

Since she led the first Earth Day efforts on campus, O’Malley went on to pursue an eclectic career. She’s written and edited for a number of magazines like Esquire, published an influential book on Andrea Yates, acted in the theater and on TV, produced documentaries, written for Law & Order, and more.

In some ways, she’s come full circle: though she left for New York quickly after graduation, O’Malley returned to Austin in 2014. She now lives in Mueller, an eco-consious mixed-use development. O’Malley’s environmental enthusiasm is not behind her; she serves as the chairman for the community’s landscaping committee, a detail she tells me with a laugh.

“We’re looking at such a big universe of how to make things greener and climate change and then when it comes right down to it, you’re bickering over which company to hire because of the prices,” she says. “The philosophy of it is one thing. What I’m doing here is the day-to-day reality of it.”

Collage by Emily Hassch, photos courtesy of Cactus yearbook; illustration by Chris Keegan.


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