Musings on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

Since I was actually alive on the original Earth Day I thought it would be appropriate for me to comment on it.  The only problem is that I have to admit that the original Earth Day just didn’t make that much of an impression on me. I was a 16-year-old high school senior at an all-white, middle- to upper-middle-class, small suburban high school in an overwhelmingly Republican community and demonstrating and protesting were just NOT DONE.  I mean, it wouldn’t look good if your prospective college found out that you had cut school for something like THAT! I think maybe 4 or 5 of my classmates were supportive of the Earth Day movement but they were, you know, those hippie types. 

Of course, I had heard of the Newport Beach oil spill in 1969 as well as the Cuyahoga River catching on fire, two of the catalyzing events for Earth Day.  And smog was certainly a problem, especially whenever we went to NYC to visit family members.  The smell of New Jersey’s refineries was overwhelming.  But I just couldn’t relate on an emotional level.  Not to mention that less than two weeks later, four college students protesting the Vietnam War were massacred at Kent State.  That seemed much more pressing and immediate.

Besides, things quickly started moving in the right direction.  In 1970, Nixon created the EPA. The same year Congress passed the Clean Air Act and created NOAA. In 1972 it passed the Clean Water Act followed quickly in 1973 by the Endangered Species Act, and in 1980, it created the SuperFund for environmental clean-up.  Things were looking up.  Rivers didn’t catch on fire anymore.  Smog was less dense. We were headed in the right direction.

And then along came Ronald Reagan followed by the execrable John Sununu (George HW Bush’s chief of staff if you don’t recognize the name), Big Oil and decades of lies. Environmental concerns became less the interest of government and more the responsibility of non-profits.   The Clinton administration made some forward progress only to be replaced by the decidedly disengaged Bush administration. Remember, Bush and Cheney were both oil men. And somewhere right in there came an inconvenient truth  – we were on a collision course with climate change.  That’s when I woke up to what was happening.

Always a big fan of Al Gore, I was appalled to learn what had happened while I was dozing through middle age and more, what was ahead of us.  It was (is) frightening and I, like many other late-to-the-party Boomers, decided I’d better get educated and involved. 

So in reality, this is probably only about the 17th anniversary of Earth Day for me.  It makes me sad – and angry – and frustrated that I missed all those others. Because we had this. 50 years ago we were on the right path.  We listened to science. We took the right steps.  And then we threw it all away. Or perhaps we had it all stolen from us by Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Coal, Big Corporate Fill-in-the-Blank with all their lies and their phony science and their bogus think tanks. And we lost 25, 30 precious years of working in cooperation with Nature and of honoring the Earth and of learning to live in harmony with all the bounty this planet can provide.

On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, when we’re all sequestered at home as a pandemic ravages the globe and we can’t go out and celebrate joyfully together, I’m thinking maybe that’s appropriate.  Maybe it’s appropriate that we sit at home and think about what’s really important to us on Earth Day.  Think about how committed we really want to be to a future in harmony with Nature rather than at war with her.  Think about whether we want to be as unprepared for the effects of climate crisis as we were for the effects of this pandemic.  Do we want our children and grandchildren to live through wave after wave of floods and fires and droughts and social upheavals and diseases and economic distress unleashed by a deteriorating climate? Or do we want to do what’s necessary to implement the systemic change – not tinkering around the edges but actual systemic change – that’s necessary to truly repair what we’ve destroyed?  

Because we can do it.  We did it before.  All the science and technology are there to do it now.  It’s all a matter of will – political will and a global commitment to make it happen.  I may have missed out on that first Earth Day, but this year I’m in – all in.  Are you?

Andrea Wittchen, President, LV Sustainability Network