Earth Day Every Day
Are We at the
Point of No Return?
In the decades leading up to the first Earth Day in 1970, when it came to environmental concerns, mainstream America was in the dark. They were largely oblivious to how a polluted environment threatened their well being.
Americans were consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through highly inefficient automobiles. With little fear, industry emitted smoke and sludge into our air and water. The consequences they might face were tantamount to a slap on the wrist.
On Earth Day’s 50th Anniversary, the world had come to a stop due to COVID-19. Ironically, some scientists believed the COVID-19 Pandemic found its origin in our practice of deforestation. In fact, in the Brazilian Amazon, deforestation had sprung to its highest rate in more than a decade. This is according to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
Rainforests have served as a buffer to humans for tens of thousands of years. Its biodiversity shields us from the harms held within. Our world is on fire and our planet is melting. Is it too late to affect real change?
The Origin of Earth Day
Every year on April 22nd, Earth Day marks the anniversary of the environmental movement which got its start back in 1970. I was surprised to learn the origin of Earth Day began here in the Midwest.
Before then, it was perfectly legal for businesses to dump toxic waste into our drinking water. Factories could eject clouds of toxic smoke into our breathing air. There were no legal or regulatory mechanisms to protect our environment. Entities such as the EPA, the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act were far from existence.
In the winter of 1969, a junior senator from Wisconsin named Gaylord Nelson, experienced the fallout of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. He, along with others, had long been concerned about the deteriorating environment in the United States.
Inspired by the anti-war movement, Senator Nelson wanted to infuse the energy of student anti-war protests into an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution. He pushed forward with his ideas.
In December 1970, a rare political alignment between parties was achieved. Their mission was to address environmental issues such as the highly destructive oil spill in California. Congress authorized the creation of a new federal agency called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Environmental laws, such as the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act were enacted. Two years later, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. A year after that, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act soon followed.
All indicators for the future of our environment seemed to be pointing in the right direction.
A Wake-up Call: 9/11
If you are my age, then you remember the life changing day of September 11, 2001. It was the day I became a real adult. It was the day I started thinking beyond our borders and started to pay attention to the world. For the first time, I began to wonder how we were seen from the outside. How our decisions impacted the rest of the world.
Experts began predicting many changes to our daily lives. After 9/11, many believed the global demand and oil prices were going to rise considerably. I remember the price of gas prior to September 11, 2001. In Wisconsin, believe it or not, it was under a dollar a gallon.
As a result of this, analysts were also predicting a move to more energy efficient, compact vehicles. In November 2001, I purchased my first new car, a Toyota Corolla. I bought it because of Toyota’s reputation for reliability. Also, because it would average about 38 miles per gallon. I thought, ‘congratulations self, you are now on the right side of history.’
Only, I didn’t understand how much more complicated everything was. What most other Americans did after 9/11, defied logic and honestly blew me away.
The experts’ predictions were wrong. They didn’t factor in human emotion. Instead of purchasing smaller cars, Americans started buying bigger cars, minivans, trucks, Suburbans, Jeeps, even military style Hummers. Some of these vehicles had about the same energy efficiency as the muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s.
I wondered, why would people go against logic and do this? I concluded, perhaps this was their way to thumb their noses at the rest of the world. The message to the world was, nothing is going to stop Americans from consuming.
Not rising energy costs, not increasing carbon emissions, not the rising cost of oil and gasoline. We’re going to continue to consume and consume at a much larger scale than we have ever before. We were told by the President himself, the most patriotic thing Americans could do to help defeat terrorism was to go shopping.
Today, Wisconsin’s average gas price is $3.79. It’s true cost, however, is so much higher. This price does not factor in government subsidies or how much our military spends per year to protect American oil supplies. It does not reflect its true impact on climate change and how much it will cost to reverse it.
It also doesn’t account for the example we continue to set for the rest of the world.
Every Problem Has a Solution (I Hope)
How much has truly changed in the last 52 years? Today, mainstream America has embraced only a very small amount of our environmental concerns. They remain largely oblivious to how a polluted environment threatens human survival.
Billionaires choose to spend their fortunes trying to find ways to reach uninhabitable planets like Mars. Meanwhile, that money could be spent helping to save our beautiful blue planet and the billions of people who live here.
Take a walk along an urban bike trail or city street and you will see dozens upon dozens of bags worth of waste along the way. As a personal aside, have you ever noticed how much litter contains a golden arch somewhere on it? Not lovin’ it.
I often wonder how difficult it would actually be for a globally-sized company having globally-sized influence to start an ‘every litter bit counts’ PR campaign? But alas, I digress.
I often tell my students to focus more on finding solutions rather than admiring the problems we’ve created. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged. It’s time for me to heed my own advice.
Earth Day Every Day?
Americans continue to consume vast amounts of gas while driving massive and inefficient automobiles. Industry continues to belch out smoke and sludge with little fear of the consequences. And the worst part? This is no longer just an American phenomenon. Now it’s a global one. Has there been any real progress since our first Earth Day 52 years ago?
Deforestation continues to shrink the world’s tropical forests, biodiversity is being lost, species extinction is accelerating and wetlands are disappearing. Earth’s ecosystems are in worse shape than they were in 1970.
We have the tools and knowledge to solve all these problems. What we lack is the political will to do so. We lack the determination that once inspired so many 52 years ago.
The powers that be call climate change an existential threat. A threat to which I thought I might not truly experience until very late in my life. How I was wrong. And how quickly the changes have been felt. Like many educators, I continue to have deep concerns for the futures of my students. Our precious resources – water, air, trees – seem to be at a critical point.
What legacy are the generations before them leaving behind? Maybe we should start with reconsidering a few of the world’s priorities: What’s more important? Trees or Big Macs?
Do you have more questions about Earth Day Every Day? Do you have a suggestion for another blog topic? Please send me an email with your ideas or experiences at email@example.com.
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