Environmentalism at Wesleyan in the 1970's

by Roger Smith '01

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Part 1: Earth Day - The Beginnings
Part 2: Rise of General Purpose Environmentalism
Part 3: The Nuclear Juggernaut
Part 4: Conclusion

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The 1970's witnessed the birth of a number of political movements, including environmentalism. The first environmental group at Wesleyan, SURVIVAL, formed in the winter of 1970 to organize events for the first Earth Day on April 22, but collapsed that summer in the wake of a student strike against the Vietnam war. In 1973, as the war waned, several students formed a general purpose environmental group called the Committee for Environmental Awareness (CEA). The CEA worked on the first recycling program in Wesleyan and Middletown, and educated the community about environmental problems, from energy use to overpopulation. The CEA, being primarily interested in changing attitudes and lifestyles, and making students more environmentally aware, never became a prominent political group on campus. Environmentalism first became a major issue at Wesleyan with protests against nuclear power plants. Several busloads of Wesleyan students traveled to Seabrook, New Hampshire in late April, 1977 to protest the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant. 40 were arrested and many missed their final exams that year, and won the full attention of the campus. The following fall, the Nuclear Resistance Group (NRG) was formed, and became one of the largest groups on campus, as it drew from all the students who became interested in these issues after the Seabrook protest. By the end of the decade, the nuclear power movement, helped by mistakes and mishaps by the nuclear industry, had succeeded in turning public opinion against nuclear power, and switched to issues of nuclear disarmament. At this time, the CEA had been replaced by ConnPIRG as a more general purpose environmental group, but neither was of much interest to the student body, and both collapsed by 1980. Environmental activism once again returned to the shadows of a larger movement, this time the fight against Apartheid in South Africa, which caused considerable upheaval at the university in the following decade.