Earth Day at 31

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Earth Day at 31, A lot’s changed since 1970.

By James A. Swan, “Media Watch” columnist for North American Hunter magazine
April 21-22, 2001

 
This Sunday, April 22, all around the world groups of people will come together in celebration of Earth Day, an event born of political outcry in 1970. The contemporary festivities will include entertainment, a few speeches, tree plantings, and litter pick-ups. Here and there you will find protests or rallies about global warming, logging, preserving wilderness, or saving the whales. Thirty-one years after the first Earth Day, it's time for some reflection.

The inspiration for Earth Day 1970 was an oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., a few months earlier. It was not that large a spill, and hardly the first. I grew up on an island in Lake Erie, downstream from Detroit where oil spills were a monthly occurrence. Oil spills killed thousands of ducks every year in the Detroit River and Lake Erie in those days. Other chemicals tainted fish flesh and there were dust falls of more than 100 tons per square mile per month downwind of the big factories. What made the Santa Barbara spill so important was that it happened in a pristine area, which made it a natural for heavy news coverage. It helped that the nation had already been socialized into a discordant mood in the wake of the Vietnam War and racial-inequality protests.

There were marches, protests, concerts, and rallies at Earth Day 1970. The tone was often angry, but debate was encouraged. Thanks to the quiet guidance of people like economist-poet Kenneth Boulding and scientists Margaret Mead and Barry Commoner, the bulk of Earth Day 1970 events were channeled into relatively peaceful teach-ins designed to inform people about the issues and to encourage thoughtful discussion.

At the University of Michigan, where I served on the ENACT Teach-In producing committee, we had the full spectrum of political perspectives from SDS and liberals on the Left, to Young Republications on the Right, plus the radical White Panthers and the Black Student Union. There were heated discussions, even a fistfight or two, but the event was a success. It was that kind of willingness to partake in inquiry that, it seemed, made the first Earth Day so vital.

Many of the problems addressed at that first Earth Day were serious. Existing environmental management and conservation was fragmented and out of step with the times. Conservation programs were primarily aimed at rural resources. Archaic public-health institutions tackled urban blights, such as air and water pollution, sprawl, and solid waste disposal; they did so with little coordination, and often with scant funding. By and large, colleges and universities mirrored the perspective of government. Environmental studies and natural-resource management and ecology seldom occurred under the same roof. Conservation or environmental education in the nation's schools was rare, and the topics of pollution, pesticides, or population were seldom discussed.

Earth Day 1970 helped establish EPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, and a number of other air- and water-pollution measures. Membership in existing environmental organizations, including the National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, and World Wildlife Fund, rose by two million in less than a year. And, by 1971, a number of new eco-organizations were born, including Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, and Public Citizen.

Thirty-one years later, if one returns to once-polluted regions like Detroit, Lake Erie, Cleveland, Gary, and the steel belt of Pennsylvania, the air and water are a lot cleaner. Trout and salmon now flourish in Lake Erie, where once only carp could survive. The photochemical smog hovering over many cities today is hardly good for health, but the sky is nowhere near as soot-laden as three decades ago. In short, many of the problems that moved people to action in 1970 are no longer the hot issues that they once were.

Eco-problems today are less obtrusive. Global warming is not visible. There are chemicals in the air, water, and soil, but most, like PCBs, are present in such small quantities that you can't perceive them without a sophisticated device like a gas chromatograph, and acute toxic exposures are seldom the issue. Yes, there are endangered species, but many animal species, including eagles, osprey, whales, and seals, are no longer endangered. Some species, like deer, turkeys, elk, geese, antelope, etc., are very abundant — more so than in Teddy Roosevelt's time. Some, in fact, have become so abundant as to cause problems. Earth Day could help us take the time to better understand the complexity of such issues, but seldom does this seem to happen.

Most eco-events these days are no-brainers — rallies, concerts, and demonstrations. The environmental movement is mature enough for some deeper self-analysis. Here's my agenda of what it ought to be contemplating:

(1) Many eco-organizations are dependent on crises. People today are bombarded by news media, network and cable television, and magazines. More often than not, the public suffers from well-informed futility about environmental issues. In return, they shell out money to support organizations, delegating responsibility to them. Eco-organizations compete for these members to support them. To stress their importance, the organizations become dependent on crises for their very existence. If crises don't exist, then some even create them, or resort to media stunts to act as if a crisis exists. Case in point: the three Greenpeace activists who recently climbed a water tower in Crawford, Tex., to unfurl a banner "Bush the Toxic Texan — Don't Mess With Mother Earth." The banner was placed to attract press attention, not the president's, and as the tower climbers were being arrested, Greenpeace was handing out press packets. Stunts like this one — like hanging banners from the Golden Gate Bridge to protest logging old-growth forests — are childish pranks with the potential to harm people. If the press would stop covering them, maybe the pranksters would stop before someone gets killed.

(2) Quality is lacking in many environmental-education efforts. Earth Day has helped foster the ethic that we should care about the Earth. We now spend millions pumping out eco-information in magazines, newsletters, and television shows. Just what good it all does is not at all that clear, aside from employing environmentalists. Along with several others, I have undertaken a study of what leads one to be an honest conservationist. It is clear that positive emotional experiences with nature, especially for young children, help spirit an ecological conscience. Such experiences bond people to nature for life with beneficial results to mind, body, and spirit. Good old-fashioned walks in the woods for kids ought to be at the core of environmental education, as much or more than slick new pamphlets or an endless stream of babble about eco-worries or manufactured crises.

(3) College education has lost its roots. The first Earth Day was about the need to expand our focus to include the whole environment, not just rural resources. Today, at colleges and universities across the U.S., there is more education about the environment in general, but less and less about the basics of wildlife, fisheries, forestry, and minerals. State natural-resource departments are still largely funded by sales of hunting and fishing licenses, but many of the new graduates have little or no training in these areas, and some have never even been camping. Graduates of schools of natural resources and the environment are matriculating without any knowledge of the people whom they are going to manage, or whose money pays their salaries. This is a little like sending out physicians without ever having dissected a cadaver.

(4) Beware "animal rights." Animal-rights groups have squeezed into the environmental movement, bringing emotional sentimentality yet often lacking any grounding in scientific fact. The basic conservation need for most animals is to provide habitat, and this is not a priority for any of the animal-rights organizations. Most of them are huge propaganda machines dependent on manufacturing crises and targets for hostility rather than doing anything constructive. Their tabloid tactics push more solid environmental groups into being more media-oriented instead of problem-solving.

(5) Fight terrorism. In the first Earth Day we smashed some cars, even buried a few; there even were some protests that required police action. The people performing terrorist acts in those days were anarchists like the Weathermen. Today we have a much wider array of violence-prone groups such as ELF, ALF, and Earth First! Peter Matthiessen calls them "green fundamentalists." Their actions give more responsible people and groups a bad image.

FBI Director Louis Freeh has stated that eco-terrorists are "the most recognizable single issue terrorists of the present time." I would challenge the environmental community to unite against terrorism as a method of expressing concern.

A Pledge
So, what do I suggest for Earth Day? Have a good time, whether you go to an event or not. Spend time outdoors; enjoy the weather, the trees, the animals, the beach. Pick up some trash. Maybe plant some flowers or a tree. Go fishing or turkey hunting; that's being eco-conscious too. Remember your roots. Personally, I'll be hiking through a beautiful park in Florida shooting clay pigeons at the Irlene Mandrell Celebrity Shoot, which benefits Wish-Upon-A-Star, Inc., a charity that grants wishes to seriously ill children. As my Earth Day pledge, I promise to pick up all my spent shell casings, and at least one piece of litter. Leaving a place cleaner than how you found it is what Earth Day is really all about.

Mr. Swan's investigations into environmental attitude-formation can be found in his award-winning book, Nature as Teacher and Healer.
 

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