COMMENTARY: I doubt I paid much attention to the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.
I liked nature, and was vaguely concerned about overpopulation, but was unaware how badly we were fouling up our environment and had no clue about global warming. I’d read Silent Spring, and about the Cuyahoga River catching fire, and the Santa Barbara oil spill, but these issues hadn’t fired me up as civil rights and the Viet Nam War had.
After a peace activist proposed a day to honor Earth, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, disturbed that an issue as important as our environment was getting little attention, created the first Earth Day. He asked Denis Hayes to organize an environmental “teach-in” modeled on peace and civil rights teach-ins. A Madison Avenue adman, volunteering, came up with “Earth Day.” Ultimately about twenty million people participated, nationwide, a surprising grassroots explosion that helped bring us the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
The next year, Hayes pushed for an international celebration. By 1990, 200 million people celebrated in 141 countries. On Earth Day 2016, the landmark Paris Agreement was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and 120 other countries. Last year, more than 100 million people celebrated Earth Day’s 50th anniversary virtually.
The Iroquois, the Navajo, and many other tribes have long recognized and celebrated the interdependence of Mother Earth and all her creatures. (That interdependence is the part European/American society still has a hard time grasping.) In the 19th Century, trains and factories already had watchful citizens concerned about how humans were affecting nature; but their concern was more aesthetics. Noise and smoke marred the peaceful countryside.
By 1906, Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot were setting aside land to protect forever.
What should we be doing now?
The major need isn’t individual action and making household changes, but community organizing, voting, and working together toward larger changes. But even recognizing we individuals can’t be the whole answer, we should each reduce our carbon footprint. Walk, bicycle, or ride a bus to some of the places we normally drive. Cut down on meat-eating, because it’s scary how much producing a month’s hamburgers impacts the environment more than providing some equally nourishing food. Recycling is basic, and composting can be fun.
Sound the alarm! Share with our community your concern about the climate crisis. It is urgent. As U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres says, “Mother Earth is clearly urging a call to action. Nature is suffering. Oceans filling with plastic and turning more acidic. Extreme heat, wildfires and floods, as well as a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season, have affected millions of people." Call our Congressperson, even though it's hard to imagine Yvette Herrell admitting there's a crisis. Join the Movement. Groups dedicated to change need support - and the power of numbers.