The COVID-19 pandemic is and has been the top breaking news story for many weeks, and will remain so for weeks (likely months) to come. Meanwhile, this week lying buried under the ever dominant news of the plague is the 50 year old news story of a ground breaking, landmark event in the history of environmentalism. It’s a history lesson that needs to be unearthed now more than ever before. Let’s dig in to rediscover the story behind that first Earth Day as we seek to resuscitate an ailing environment plagued by powerful forces that seem immune to scientific fact and moral persuasion.
Back in the spring of 1970 the first Earth Day was observed with massive college “teach-ins” and community celebrations and demonstrations. It can be thought of as the second stage of the rocket that first launched the environmental movement with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Or as Michael B. Gerrard, a Columbia University law professor and director of the school’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law more aptly put it, “Earth Day was, to the environmental movement, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly and taking flight.” [That quote was plucked from an absolutely fascinating NY Times article about Denis Hayes, the coordinator of the first Earth Day. It’s a must read.]
Although we are currently consumed by the pandemic of 2020 and the toll it is taking on personal and economic health, there is a sobering fact about the overall ongoing health of our common home as we approach the under appreciated 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The fact is that in what is deemed to be the greatest democracy and most developed and powerful nation on Earth, we are doing less to protect the environment and more to destroy the Commons today than we were half a century ago. And the acknowledgement of that somber reality across a country where every issue is plagued by a partisan divide is the disturbing truth of Earth Day 2020.
This excerpt from the history of Earth Day reminds us of the sweeping bi-partisan environmental legislation that was fueled by the Earth Day movement:
“By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of other first of their kind environmental laws, including the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act. Two years later Congress passed the Clean Water Act. A year after that, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act and soon after the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. “
That was then. For a truly fascinating in-depth look at what the times were like that led up to Earth Day and to the establishment of the first Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), I commend you to a revealing article published in The Guardian in the spring of 1992. Only after such a read can one truly appreciate the fall from grace that now defines the EPA and the assault on the environment that has been and is ever more so being waged under the cloud of COVID-19.
This is now. Recently in advance of Earth Day Jessica Maudlin (Associate for Sustainable Living and Earth Care Concerns, Presbyterian Hunger Program) wrote to all Earth Care Congregations in the PC(USA). In that communication she shared an article she had written about the EPA rollbacks quietly taking place. In the article she states this fundamental fact: “Facing this ecological crisis as people of faith, we know that this disregard of the environment is a violation of our original vocation. Scripture is full of amazingly strong admonitions and commandments to protect animals and nature, charging us to practice thoughtful stewardship over God’s Creation.” Take a moment to read the full article HERE.
This is now. In a Yale Environment 360 article, Richard Conniff writes about “How the Laws that Earth Day Inspired Have Benefitted Us All.” In the midst of this administration’s relentless regulatory rollbacks, he states the case for the overwhelming benefits to the common good that environmental regulations have fostered.
This is also now. At a time when science is daily disregarded and scientists systematically dismissed, the Union of Concerned Scientists offers this invitation to join in the 3 day livestream Earth Day Live event beginning April 22. RSVP HERE to join. There are also a myriad of other opportunities available in which to partake if we wish to jump into the cause to revive the original Earth Day spirit. The Spirit (the breath of God) is surely willing to breathe new life into weakened flesh.
Whatever you do, don’t let the 50th anniversary of Earth Day go by without recommitting to the emphasis of the original Earth Day movement. Now more than ever we all need to make every day Earth Day.