Next week marks the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day, when some 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks and public squares for an unprecedented call to protect our planet’s precious resources.
Because the first national show of support took place at the height of turbulent times, it’s easy to image Earth Day as a counter-cultural event. It was not.
The idea for the demonstration came from Democratic U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin), who recruited as co-chair conservation-minded Republican Congressman, Pete McCloskey (California). Together they built a bipartisan coalition of activists, academics, celebrities and regular moms and pops. They were rich and poor, urban and rural, businesses people and union members. Not only did they turn out in their millions on April 22, 1970, they stayed in the fight – creating the modern day environmental movement.
The original Earth Day was a response to a smoldering cauldron of concerns across America. In cities like New York and Los Angles, the daily weather report noted whether the air quality was safe for outdoor activities. Industrial pollution and hazardous waste ravaged the heartland, perhaps most symbolically when, in 1969, Ohio's Cuyahoga River, which flowed through Cleveland and other industrial cities, caught fire. Rachel Carson’s best selling book, Silent Spring (1962) had brought home the dangers of toxins in our lands and waterways. She publicized the near-extinction of our national symbol, the bald eagle, largely due to spraying DDT.
The coalition found an ally in President Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency, signed the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, and greatly strengthened the Clean Water Act.
Fast forward to Earth Day, 2012. Much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done. Our problems are more complicated, more technoloogical, more partisan and less visible to the casual observer than they were four decades ago.
Perhaps most pressing is the debate over the severity and causes of global climate change. Locked in partisan bickering, many in leadership roles seem blind to the fact that our sea levels are rising, deserts are expanding, severe and damaging storms are becoming the norm, and these weather patterns are having devastating effects on human and wildlife communities.
Biologists tell us we are in another “great” cycle of extinction, as species that cannot adapt to rapid climate changes and human encroachment are being lost forever. As we rush forward to ensure that our fuel and energy needs are met, we find – at the same time -- that every method has a downside for humans and wildlife that must be figured into the equation.
In our area, hydrofracking is one of the most contentious issues. Proponents call it a boon to local economies and a way of reducing our dependence on imported oil. Others, who have studied the effects of hydrofracking in other communities, have found damage to ground-water quality, negative health effects on humans and livestock, and even potential geological issues (increased earthquake activity in areas where drilling is prevalent).
And, even though we have banished toxins such as DDT, other chemicals we use every day in the house and garden might have disastrous health effects that we are just learning about.
Still, there is much to be grateful for. As we celebrate another Earth Day, make a personal pledge to do your part. Starting with your own home, try to increase what you recycle, compost instead of sending everything to the land fill, and do a home energy audit to reduce your use of fuel and electricity. All of these things will save you money as well as help save the planet.
The next step is to get involved at the local level. Washington may be locked in partisan bickering, but the same is not true of town governments and organizations throughout Fairfield and Westchester Counties. Here, citizens are working together to make our communities healthier and more environmentally friendly. Towns such as Somers, Bedford, Rye, Stamford, Greenwich, Norwalk and others have coalitions assisting community members in everything from home energy audits to improving open spaces. You can support them and get involved.
In 1970, the environmental issues were stark and highly visual. That helped energize the actions of millions of people and sparked the environmental reforms that now we take for granted. In the 21st century, the challenge is to take more personal responsibility, study the issues and find long-term solutions rather than quick fixes. We must get away from name calling and realize that we are all in this together.
I am an optimist. I think we can solve these problems as a community, a country, and a world. We owe it to ourselves and to the other creatures we share the planet with. Happy Earth Day to you all!
John Hannan is director of development for Audubon Connecticut and can be reached at email@example.com.