Local View Column: Earth Day a reminder of so much already achieved
Happy Earth Day! For 50 years, since 1970, Americans of all political persuasions, faiths, and backgrounds have undertaken personal action to help the environment for Earth Day, which is celebrated each year on April 22.
A half century is a milestone at which we often pause to reflect upon the passing of time. In 1970, Paul McCartney left the Beatles, the Chiefs beat the Vikings in Super Bowl IV, the Boeing 747 had its first commercial flight on Pan Am’s route to London, and the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.
Yes, times have changed. Likewise, we find ourselves in a very different place on Earth Day this year when compared to half a century ago.
First, the passion and inspiration that was a hallmark of Earth Day in 1970 has dimmed. The first Earth Day was a time for possibilities, the impetus for the passage of seminal laws, policies, and individual actions that made for cleaner air and water and greater public involvement in decision-making. Twenty million people turned out to demonstrate and celebrate this day 50 years ago. The coronavirus has made that impossible this year. The sense of inspiration, sweeping change, and idealism is more elusive.
Second, environmental protection has become a partisan issue. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, politicians could get elected on environmental platforms. Congress worked in a bipartisan fashion to craft far-reaching environmental bills, and President Richard Nixon signed into law landmark legislation. But by the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s appointment of anti-environmentalist James Watt as secretary of interior, and other appointments, signaled those days were over.
Third, it’s difficult to rally public action to invisible threats. The Santa Barbara oil spill in California, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catching on fire, and phosphates creating vast mats of soap bubbles on our Great Lakes all generated widespread public demands for action in 1970 and birthed the first Earth Day. Today, our environmental issues are more insidious and invisible. Climate change. Invasive species. Airborne toxics. Sewage plant overflows. The enemy is stealthy, incremental, and complex. Rallying the public to action is much more difficult.
Fourth, science has become suspect to some decision-makers. Scientific study and understanding was something to be respected on that first Earth Day. After all, we had just used science to put a man on the moon. But in recent years, “science” applied to environmental understanding has become suspect by some. The poster child for this is climate change, where there is near unanimity among scientists that fossil fuels are warming the planet and predict disastrous consequences. And in a “shoot the messenger” mindset unthinkable in 1970, Wisconsin’s former Gov. Scott Walker eliminated his Bureau of Research in the state’s Department of Natural Resources and removed most of its scientists.
Finally, one thing hasn’t changed much in 50 years. Balancing long-term environmental protection with short-term economic gains remains politically explosive. Ever since the first Earth Day, we’ve struggled with balancing economic values with unquantifiable values like beauty, clean water, and ecological balance. Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the father of Earth Day, was fond of reminding us that, "The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around." Thus we continue the battles that pit Pacific salmon against hydropower interests, oil development against preservation in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and, closer to home, mineral extraction against Boundary Waters protection.
The first Earth Day was born from a crisis. This Earth Day we face a very different crisis, the coronavirus. It has lessons to teach us. I hope it will remind us that we can’t afford partisanship. That we can address any issue working together. That science is a powerful tool for understanding and taking action. That invisible enemies are just as consequential as those we can see. That economic activities crumble in an unhealthy environment.
Earth Day can remind us of the human capacity for hope and imagination — and that we can achieve amazing outcomes when we passionately pursue healing our world.
Mark R. Peterson was executive director of Audubon Minnesota and the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College in Ashland. Retired now, he lives in Bayfield. He wrote this for the News Tribune.