This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Twenty million Americans celebrated the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. That massive outpouring of activism forced politicians to pay attention to the environment and resulted in the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passing or strengthening of laws regulating clean air, clean water and endangered species. In just a few years, this grassroots, democratic action made the United States a world leader in environmental protection.
Since then, many would argue that American environmental leadership has declined. In fact, the late founder of Earth Day, Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, criticized the Bush administration’s environmental record before the 2004 election, saying it "failed to lead and actually sabotaged progress on crucial environmental problems."
Despite, or perhaps because of political fights over environmental laws, environmental activism on a local and individual level has become mainstream. Even when government loosens the rules protecting the environment, the neighborhood recycling program continues. In fact in recent years, individuals have been far more important than government in driving the green movement.
Businesses see that going green is good for the bottom line.
- Companies that reduce waste and energy-use save money while attracting consumers who like green business.
- Despite the higher prices, more people are buying organic and locally grown food.
- Magazines are selling green issues, and TV networks broadcast episodes of popular shows with green themes.
- People are replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents to save energy.
- Oil companies advertise their research into alternatives to oil.
Earth Day is seen as a time to celebrate these efforts and to educate the public about issues of environmental protection and sustainability.
Some have criticized Earth Day, however, saying efforts like recycling and green consumerism do nothing but talk the good talk of sustainability. According to the website treehugger.com, Earth Day “has changed from counter-cultural protest to cute grade school celebration.” Without a major lifestyle overhaul in wealthy nations, critics say, environmental destruction will continue.
Ken Schechtman, vice chair of the executive committee for Sierra Club’s Eastern Missouri Chapter, points out the failings of feel-good environmentalism in a recent article in the SierraScape newsletter. “Without broadly dispersed sacrifice, major economic compromise, and critical technological advances, our [environmental] revolution will be devoured like popcorn by the onslaught of global warming,” he wrote, especially in light of growth in developing countries.
But Schechtman does not minimize the importance of celebrations like Earth Day. The first component in any political action is getting people involved, he said in a phone interview. He believes that celebrations educating people about how to live green, on an individual basis, are important. “We should of course pursue those ‘20 green things.’ They empower people. And since America’s behavior has profound global impact, multifaceted leadership is our obligation,” he wrote in SierraScape.
Doug Ladd, director of conservation science for the Nature Conservancy of Missouri , agrees that Earth Day is important for educating the public, especially young people, about conservation. In fact, Ladd says Earth Day may be “more important now than in 1970.”
“Children think food comes only from the supermarket,” Ladd said, emphasizing that people must understand the interdependence of our natural and human systems. “They’re not separate,” he said, “We must weave the two together or we will fail as a people.”
The social and economic health of a community, he explained, depend on having a biodiverse and healthy environment. The systems that support the community, the water supply, the soil’s fertility, the natural resources, must be cared for, Ladd said, or the systems will fail, and people with it. Earth Day can be a forum to raise awareness and discuss these issues.
According to Ladd, our interaction through time with our landscape is part of our humanity and cultural heritage. “We have a sacred responsibility,” he said, “to make sure our grandchildren can see these diverse native landscapes.”
But beyond a time to raise awareness, celebrate accomplishments, and get people involved in the solutions, Ladd sees an opportunity to reflect on Earth itself.
“Earth Day should be a time to appreciate a sense of place,” Ladd said, “to celebrate the uniqueness of every area on Earth’s surface.”