Earth Day’s Golden Anniversary

Ah, the 60s. Women in beehive hairdos and short skirts. Afros and bellbottoms. Muscle cars, flower children, soldiers in ‘Nam, protesters, riots, a river burning in Cleveland…Wait. A river burning? A. River. Burning.

Cleveland’s burning Cuyahoga River became iconic in 1969 when Time magazine wrote about pollution and published a picture of the 1952 Cuyahoga River fire (one of many). Randy Newman penned “Burn On” while Pete Seeger sang sadly about the filthy Hudson and hoped that “someday, though maybe not this year, my Hudson river will again run clear,” and Senator Gaylord Nelson decided that “we only have one Earth, so we need to protect her.” Gaylord talked to people who talked to people, and the first Earth Day happened April 22, 1970

About 20 million people – roughly 10 percent of the American population – took notice and turned out to support Mother Nature. Not bad in a time without Facebook, cell phones, or even email. The first Earth Day achieved Gaylord Nelson’s vision: an opportunity for all to learn about their planet and how to care for it. Who doesn’t want to know how they can help prevent environmental disasters?

Earth Day continues to be popular and now has a global following. This year’s Golden Anniversary will be celebrated in at least 193 countries. Today more than 1 billion people participate in one way or another – that is one in eight people around the globe. As Earth Day celebrates its 50th anniversary, the day is more important and relevant than ever.

1970’s Earth Day brought forth the Clean Air and Water Quality Improvement Acts and led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency several months later. Later Earth Days – and the awareness they brought about – also led to nationwide recycling programs and strong response to environmental disasters. Today it is rare to find a homeowner who doesn’t recycle something.

The “protect the Earth” policy has spread into all facets of consumerism. Cars today are lighter and more fuel efficient than ever before. Many people drive hybrid cars that essentially recycle their own energy, and affordable electric cars are already in the assembly lines. Laundry detergents no longer have phosphates, Energy Star appliances are everywhere, and laws exist to control the use of neonicotinoids, which is famous for killing bees. Even the beloved glyphosate (Roundup) is under fire. Well, there are worse things than weeds. One man’s weed is another man’s wildflower…

Despite the hard-won environmental advances there’s still plenty to do. People in-the-know speak of the “Insect Apocalypse,” “ocean acidification,” “the Holocene/Anthropocene (human) extinction,” “fossil fuels,” “sea level rise,” “the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” “silent spring,” “extreme weather events,” “methane”…

Earth Day has always been about teaching people how to care for our planet properly. This year, Earth Day’s theme is global warming. It must have been hard for the global Earth Day committee to choose.

Global warming is the elephant in the room. Nobody is entirely certain how to evict it, but fortunately there are things we can do that will allow a better future for today’s infants. This is what Earth Day is about, after all, learning about environmental problems and how you can help to fix them.

Why should any of us worry about global warming? Climate change and really lousy weather is a good place to start. (Weather is what happens outside today; climate is what can be expected to happen over the course of a year or more.) Storms – hurricanes, northeasters, blizzards, etc., will be fiercer than usual, causing more damage that will disrupt lives and be costly to clean up. The climate changing will mean longer, hotter droughts and, in some places, wetter weather that will drown crops. Farmers may not be able to grow the crops they’ve grown for years and, in some cases, the land will become unsuitable for any kind of farming at all.

Pretty terrible for us humans. Bad as it is for us, it’s worse for millions of small creatures, from bacteria in the soil (which die from drowning or dehydration in a drought) to the gigantic blue whales. All of this leads to the collapse of food webs, so that the disappearance of the smallest leads to the disappearance of the largest at the top of the food chain. Eventually, we’re the ones who disappear.

There are many easy things we can do to help. The U.N. is hopeful that a trillion trees will be planted and nurtured. Those trees will clean the air and reduce carbon that is a major factor in the warming climate. Take fewer trips in your car to reduce air pollution from their exhaust. Reduce, reuse, recycle everything you can.

It’s our planet; let’s be good to it.

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