When Americans observed the first Earth Day in 1970, I was in 10th grade — and Lake Erie was on fire. Thick goos of pollution hung over industrial cities. Wildlife populations were plummeting. And student protesters cried out for a different, more sustainable path.
It was a wakeup call. I was all in. April 22 quickly became my favorite day of the year.
This emotional connection led to a lifelong involvement in the environmental movement. I created an event at the nature center I directed. We planted trees, pulled invasive plants, picked up trash, studied energy issues, and focused our attention on saving rainforests and endangered species.
In 1989, I helped plan Minnesota's 20th anniversary celebration of Earth Day. That planning committee eventually morphed into the Minnesota Earth Day Network. For several years people interested in everything from solar power and ethanol to overpopulation and wildlife conservation joined forces to educate one another and the public. I became a far better activist because of that experience.
But as time went on, I watched Earth Day evolve. And not in a good way. The primary motivation behind the first Earth Day — the need to limit rapid population growth to reduce our impact on the environment — was swept under the rug. Companies which wanted to sell "green" products co-opted the holiday as a marketing tool. It became all about the 50 things you could buy — fluorescent light bulbs, organic food, and cloth bags — to save the planet. Just like President's Day is now an excuse to sell mattresses.
America needs another wake-up call. We have a responsibility to discuss the carrying capacity of the United States. Overpopulation directly causes the myriad environmental problems we're currently facing.
When the first Earth Day happened, the United States had just over 205 million people. We've since increased our population to 329 million, largely because of above-replacement fertility rates throughout the 1970s and ’80s and rising immigration rates. While fertility rates have declined in recent years to roughly replacement levels, our population in the U.S. is still growing rapidly due to migration from other countries. Our nation’s population will reach 441 million by 2065, according to Pew Research — and 88% of that growth will come from immigration.
Adding more than 100 million additional consumers to our country would threaten our open spaces, wildlife, and freshwater aquifers. Yet conversations, much less action, about the total fertility rate or immigration quotas are now taboo, even among the largest environmental organizations.
I grew up playing in the Minnesota woods near my house. I fell in love with nature and was captivated by wild animals at an early age. Now all of that is at stake. We have no real plan in place to address the underlying cause.
In 1970, 20 million people marched to protest the way we treated the environment. As the 50th anniversary of Earth Day nears, let's once again harness that energy and reclaim the day from the corporations that view it as another opportunity to profit. Let it once again be the wake-up call we need to chart a different path for ourselves and our children.
Karen Shragg is an author and environmental consultant living in Richfield, Minnesota.