Local View Column: In tough times, Earth Day a reason to celebrate

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Craig Sterle

The news of the day is filled with anxiety. The nation and world grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. People continue to flee war and violence, leading to social unrest globally. Africans are overrun with plagues of locusts that will likely lead to starvation.

All of this is while the world’s climate is changing before our very eyes.

So it’s hard to find much to be cheerful about. The mood of the people is one of both apprehension and powerlessness over our future. There’s a collective “solastalgia,” a mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual hurt due to witnessing harm to one’s relative, the earth, the natural world. The term was defined by mental health clinician Leah Prussia of the College of St. Scholastica at the 2019 St. Louis River Estuary Summit.

Before we allow our collective psyche to be subverted by all these challenges, let us not forget one shining moment in history that greatly benefitted the people of this country and beyond. This Wednesday, April 22, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Born at a time when rivers caught fire, smog killed thousands annually, and people protested in the streets over widespread environmental degradation of the planet, Earth Day was the brainchild of Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson.

Sen. Nelson believed that, “Every person has the inalienable right to a decent environment.” Congress proceeded to pass laws that led to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. The Environmental Protection Agency was created to oversee these new laws, which were designed to protect our nation’s public-trust resources.


Understanding full well that this was going to require a collective change in how we conducted business, Sen. Nelson famously said, “The ultimate test of man's conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”

Sen. Nelson saw clearly that, “The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats, and biodiversity. … That's all there is. That's the whole economy. That's where all the economic activity and jobs come from. These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world.”

Those of us old enough to remember the St. Louis River prior to the arrival of the Clean Water Act and the construction of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, or WLSSD, know that the river was an open cesspool. This was because of the massive amount of inadequately treated industrial and municipal waste dumped into the river, with the thought it would all be carried away, downstream. Recreating in the water and eating the fish were unheard of. Though our state and federal agencies are still working diligently to clean up remaining legacy pollutants, the river today is something we can all be proud of, something we can enjoy, and something that now provides a renewed source of economic vitality.

“If we human beings learn to see the intricacies that bind one part of a natural system to another and then to us, we will no longer argue about the importance of wilderness protection or over the question of saving endangered species or how human communities must base their economic futures — not on short-term exploitation but on long-term, sustainable development,” Sen. Nelson said.

He recognized that the exploitation of our natural resources, to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, was short-term thinking that would lead to economic ruin. What was needed was a social consciousness to make the difficult decision to first and foremost conserve and sustain our natural resources for future generations.

Earth Day is no longer an event celebrated just here in America. It has become an international event. The world owes much to Gaylord Nelson.

And so, on Earth Day, realize there is still progress to be made to restore and protect our natural world; but take a few minutes to step outdoors, take a deep breath, and give thanks to Sen. Nelson for the better, cleaner world in your neighborhood.

Craig Sterle of Barnum is past president of the Minnesota Division of the Izaak Walton League of America.

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