Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 11/23/2014 11:11:06 PM CST

Top Stories

Courtesy of Lois Shuford at One Book One Northwestern

Project Survival helped launch the environmental movement with a "teach-out" at Northwestern University on Jan. 23, 1970. The organizers, former members of Northwestern University's Students for a Better Environment, met for a 40-year reunion in Washington, D.C.

Front Row (L to R): Larry Gilbert, Gretchen Van Meer Sigwart. Middle Row: Charles Sigwart, Marilyn Karr, Casey Jason, Jim Robin. Back Row: Wesley Pipes, James Reisa, Warren Muir.

Forty years later, environmental activists remember Project Survival

by Leslie Streicher
Jan 27, 2010

Related Links

Check out One Book One Northwestern's Web pages dedicated to Project Survival

Earth Day Then and Now


On April 22, 2010, One Book One Northwestern will host a full day celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day. 1970s founding members of Northwestern Students for a Better Environment are expected to reinvigorate environmental discussion on a panel of experts and activists. Tom Friedman's global warning cry "Hot, Flat and Crowded" is the One Book selection for this academic year.

Here are some facts about Earth Day:

-The first National Earth Day was April 22, 1970.

-Earth Day founder was U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis.

-20 million people participated in the first Earth Day to advocate for a healthier environment.

-The first Earth Day led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

-Earth Day first went global in 1990 led by Denis Hayes, the honorary chair of the Earth Day Network.

-Earth Day events continue to grow today!

They hadn’t been together as a group in decades. Now, with many of them retired, former members of Northwestern Students for a Better Environment met Saturday in Washington, D.C., for the 40th reunion of a 1970s “teach-out” that helped launch the environmental movement.  

James Reisa and Warren Muir, both directors of environmental arms of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering, hosted the reunion, the first since 1980. The group reminisced about their days as graduate students and activists during a time when environmentalism was just starting to plant its roots in public policy. 

“Everyone laughed at how young they looked back then,” said Paul Friesema, a Northwestern political scientist who specializes in environmental policy. He served as a faculty advisor for the student group long after its founders had graduated and attended the big kick-off event organized by the students in 1970. 

On Jan. 23, 1970, three months before the first National Earth Day, the group led by the graduate students mobilized the nation’s first large-scale environmental movement event. Project Survival: A Public Teach-Out on the Environmental Problems of Species Man, brought national environmental prophets such as Barry Commoner and Paul Ehrlich to campus. And to say it was a huge success is an understatement. 

Newspapers, television crews, environmentalists and other experts from around the country, musicians and 10,000 spectators showed up to support and learn about environmental causes. 

“Somehow we got it together and pulled it off,” said Charles Sigwart, a former member of the group and now a retired professor of computer science at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. 

And the success didn’t stop there. After heavily aiding in the government ban of phosphates in detergents, an unnecessary lathering additive that severely pollutes water, group members went on to promote other causes at various events.   

“There was a whole lot of activity,” Sigwart said. “We were really working to make sure information was flowing between student groups, community groups and government groups.”

And although the group has had an undeniable influence on the environmental movement and pollution awareness, Friesema said they couldn’t help but talk about some unfinished business at the reunion. 

“After all these years, the group still has an agenda,” Friesema said. 

They are well aware of what worked and what didn’t work with their campaign to improve environmental awareness, Friesema said. They won the battle against polluting phosphates but fell short on their initiative to build a stronger environmental research department at Northwestern, he said.

“There are some things already in the air,” said Friesema. “Most of the group will be coming back to Northwestern for Earth Day and want to meet with [the university president], Morton Schapiro, to talk about their agenda.” 

The university has formed the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern to promote cross-disciplinary research and learning. 

Northwestern also has taken steps to improve environmental education with a doctoral program in plant biology and conservation in tandem with the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Science and Academic Programs. But the group is hoping for more. 

“We’re retired,” said Sigwart. “We are getting old and frail. We need a new generation to have another wave of environmental concern to make some major changes from here.”

Academic agendas aside, the group agrees it is ready to pass the torch to a new wave of environmentally concerned Northwestern students who can address issues about climate change, carbon pollution and energy resources. 

With the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, plans to reinvigorate attention about climate change and environmental causes are underway all over the nation. Several organizers of Project Survival will be participating in programs at Northwestern.  

“People are aware of the problems with the environment,” said Gretchen Van Meer Sigwart, a former member of the group who met her husband Charles while both were in grad school. She is a retired professor of engineering and computer science at Northern Illinois University. 

“But it’s hard to get the world to actually do something about it,” said Sigwart.

And that’s where today's student groups come in. 

“Northwestern couldn’t have done what it did unless student groups reached out to thousands of community groups that responded and put pressure on the manufactures and public policy,” said Sigwart.

And after 40 years of experience as an environmental activist, Van Meer Sigwart has a few words of advice for the next generation. 

“What made us different from most activist groups is that we had a lot of technical expertise and we made sure we got our facts right,” she said. 

A group known for doing their homework, Van Meer Sigwart said they conducted their own scientific analysis of detergents to determine how much phosphate was present. And future groups should be just as vigilant.

“We are very willing to talk to student groups about activism, scientific inquiry and how to go to relevant agencies in the community to influence policy change,” said Sigwart. “You have to figure out how to get to the people who can make the change and make them do it.”