As we celebrate Earth Day on April 22, consider this sobering thought: We’re maybe one-three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth of the way to recognizing the significance of our home.
Back in 1970, when I was a student at the University of Michigan and helped to organize the first Earth Day (and it really was the FIRST, since we held it a week early to avoid a conflict with our spring break!) we were sure that our efforts would change the world. We hosted speakers like Ralph Nader, David Brower, Barry Commoner, and other leaders of the fledgling environmental movement.
As a journalism student, I helped bring a trio of prominent journalists to campus for a symposium. Gladwin Hill of the New York Times, Robert Cahn of the Christian Science Monitor, and Edwin Newman of NBC News – who all won awards for their environmental reporting – assured us that getting the “save the Earth” message before the public would shape the course of history.
Sure enough, opinion polls soon after Earth Day found that about half of Americans believed that protecting the environment was the biggest concern facing the country. We were building awareness! And people WOULD begin to “love your mother.”
Yet, four decades later, the environment has almost dropped off the radar of many polls. We worry instead about health care, jobs, corrupt politicians, and terrorists.
And my admiration for Ralph Nader – one of the most memorable speakers in 1970 – turned to disgust in 2000, when Nader’s ego-driven run for president sucked enough votes away from Al Gore to give the election to George W. Bush. (Enough said about THAT disaster!)
Have we made any progress in 40 years? Of course! We have the Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and bans on many dangerous pesticides and chemicals. We occasionally recycle, bring reusable shopping bags to the store. Some businesses brag about being “green.” But that doesn’t keep us from spraying pesticides on our dandelions or driving our SUVs to the campground, where we expect to have hot showers and flush toilets.
As an aging 1970s eco-freak, I find myself frustrated and embarrassed with our failures. We still think we’re doing enough by – once a year – honoring “Earth Day.” How about using the other 364 days to herald Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, or Sylvan Runkel’s natural citizens, or Gladys Black’s passion for wild creatures, or Teddy Roosevelt’s vision for wilderness. Or simply to get outdoors, savor the spring flowers, and run our fingers through the dirt!