Imagine rivers catching on fire, pesticides slowly poisoning flocks of birds and thousands of barrels of oil spilling into the ocean. To Americans living in the 1960s, these images – popping up on their televisions nightly and even in their cities – presented a frightening reality

Chicago was no exception. Since the late 1800s, residents dealt with a constant output of smoke and debris that coated everything from buildings to hanging laundry. Lake Michigan was full of "stinking piles of algae and alewives," said one article in the Chicago Tribune.

One Northwestern student saw the appalling conditions of pollution as a chance for change. "Have you heard about all of this pollution?" Casey Jason, a Weinberg sophomore at Northwestern asked Jim Reisa in 1969. Reisa, at the time a graduate student studying biological science, heard all about the pollution threatening Chicago and the United States. He was known as the ecologist of his lab.

"Well, what are you going to do about it?" Jason asked.

"Go away, kid," Reisa said. "I'm busy."

But Jason came back.

"He kept saying, ‘What are you going to do about it?'– he must've said that four or five times," Reisa says. "I thought about it and I just decided, ‘Well, let's have a meeting of the students,' and that's how it started."

Eventually, a group of students and faculty convened to discuss the pollution endangering Lake Michigan and the rest of the country. The students decided to call themselves Northwestern Students for a Better Environment (NSBE), and they were about to do a lot.

Project Survival

NSBE entered the scene at a time when college campuses were boiling with Vietnam War protests. Northwestern students built barricades, went on strike and threatened to burn down Lunt Hall, creating tensions with the administration and the Evanston community. Reisa was adamant that NSBE would take a different approach. "We couldn't really do anything about the environment by alienating what was then called the ‘silent majority,'" says Reisa, who served as the first group chair. "We really needed to bring the information and the information would cause many people to take up the cause."

In the months leading up to the very first celebration of Earth Day in April 1970, Reisa worked with representatives from other colleges to plan events raising awareness about environmental issues. On Jan. 23, 1970, NSBE hosted Project Survival, the first environmental "teach-out" in the style of countless "teach-ins" created to inform the public about issues like the Vietnam War and civil rights. "Teach-ins were very ‘in' at the time; we were doing a ‘teach-out,' which means we reached out to the community," says Jim Robin, who served as chairman of the air pollution committee of NSBE. "Rather than just [staying] within the academic community, [we reached] out to the public to teach them about the environment."

Nationally recognized environmental speakers like Paul Simon and Paul Ehrlich agreed to speak for a fraction of their normal fee. "I'm not sure how they got these people," says Keith Woodhouse, a history professor at Northwestern. "They were kind of the all-star lineup of environmental speakers."

Jason, who was president of NSBE at the time, recalls helping convince environmentalists that Project Survival was worth their while. "Jim [Reisa] was a wheeler-dealer … Jim billed it as we were the most powerful student group in the country, in the environment and that we would be creating history," Jason says. "Instead of getting $10,000 or $20,000 they accepted an honorarium of under 1,000 bucks, with the idea that they would be making history."

The moment made history for Northwestern. Around 10,000 people flooded in or around the Technological Institute that night, and they weren't all students. Residents from Evanston and Chicago and environmental activists from all over came to learn more, in addition to the busloads of students that arrived from different universities. Newspapers, radio and television media, including the Chicago Tribune and NBC, covered the teach-out.

It may have been educational, but it was certainly not boring. Transcripts from the night show the speakers' warnings about the widespread destruction of resources and the need to do something now. "The air we breathe, the water we drink and our natural resource treasures must have their day in court," Victor Yannacone, a co-founder of the Environmental Defense Fund, said at the teach-out. "And I say to you all, as students, don't just sit here and bitch; sue somebody."

After a midnight "sing-out" with the popular folk artist Tom Paxton, breakout sessions began in Tech. Professors gave half-hour classes on topics like the "Depletion of Natural Resources" and "How to Save a Lake." The event continued until 6 a.m. "It was an absolute incredible happening," recalls Warren Muir, a member of NSBE. "I mean, a number of people who said that it was a life-changing event for them. You had the sense that it was sort of a rally that would lead people in the audience to be involved, not necessarily in NSBE, but be involved in environmental issues then and publicly in the future."

Continued Enthusiasm

Bolstered by the enormous success of Project Survival, NSBE continued the charge for environmental causes. One of their first targets: phosphates.

For decades, Phosphates from detergents and fertilizer washed into the water, which created the perfect environment for algae to grow in a process called cultural eutrophication. Lakes around the country suffered from massive algal blooms, which killed fish and made the water dangerous for human use. NSBE wanted to protect Lake Michigan and other waterways, so they decided to take action, not by protesting, but through education. "We had our graduate students in the chemistry department buy a bunch of laundry detergents off the shelf in grocery stores and do a quantitative analysis to determine the phosphate content of each detergent," Reisa says. "We made up a list which [had] the highest [phosphate content and] what was the phosphate per laundry load in each detergent."

Jason approached Jewel-Osco to ask that the list get posted in their local store. "Within a matter of weeks, the sales of high phosphates detergents from that store plummeted and the sales of the low phosphate detergents just skyrocketed," Reisa says. "So Jewel put it in all of their stores, and then other grocery stores put the list up too."

Laundry detergent manufacturers took notice, and began decreasing the phosphate content. But not all by choice – Chicago instituted a ban on phosphorus in detergents in 1970, praising the actions of NSBE as they announced the legislation.

NSBE also testified at local and state hearings in the early 1970s and helped introduce the Environmental Act to the Illinois state constitution. Throughout the 1970s, Illinois would create their own Environmental Protection Agency and enact clean air and water legislation. Some of NSBE's leaders would go on to shape policy at the national level. "I was studying organometallic reaction mechanisms. I was going to be a university teacher," says Muir, who began work at the then-recently established Council on Environmental Quality when he left Northwestern. "Instead, I got recruited to be one of the very first scientists in the White House working on federal and environmental policy because of my leadership role with Northwestern!"

Muir joined several other veterans of NSBE for a celebration marking the 40th anniversary of Project Survival in 2010. Now, almost 50 years since NSBE's biggest accomplishments, many of the memories of the group's innovative efforts to unite government, business and academia in a non-confrontational approach have begun to fade. But Jason says he thinks NSBE's legacy of success remains as impressive and inspirational as ever. "What we did in the 60s [and 70s] was unique," Jason says. "It wasn't little projects of this, that and the other – we impacted Chicago and the nation. That doesn't happen too often out of a university undergraduate school."