Earth Day – a 50th Anniversary

Today is Earth Day, the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970. Observances of Earth Day will be a little different this year. With bans on group gatherings, we’ll have to celebrate at our homes, in the company of family.

It will be in sharp contrast to the first Earth Day in 1970. Denis Hayes talked about that first Earth Day for an AARP publication, telling of going to Washington D.C. to meet with Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), hoping to become an organizer for the event at Harvard University, where he was a graduate student. Instead, he ended up as chief organizer for the nationwide observance. He dropped out of Harvard, moved to Washington D.C. and started work, eventually speaking to millions at a huge rally in New York City.

An indication of how things change, is that when they talked to reporters about the planned event, they tried to get them to include the Earth Day mailing address in stories. They’d get mail and developed a mailing list. Eventually they’d be mimeographing 50,000 copies of some communication, and then address, stuff, stamp, and mail envelopes.

I wonder if there is anyone who was born in 1970 who even knows what a mimeograph machine is, other than a dusty relic in the back of some office storerooms. Sending an email to 50,000 addresses is almost child’s play these days.

The Tobacco Root Mountains of southwest Montana on a spring day.

In any event, the legacy of Earth Day is major legislation, such as the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and 1970 Amendments to the Clean Air Act. 

More to the point is that rivers got cleaned up, our air is cleaner, our gasoline no longer spews lead into the air, and other changes.

For the benefit of people whose memories don’t go back that far, we can recall images of an Ohio river that flows into Lake Erie, near Cleveland. That river often caught on fire and burned, because of pollution dumped into the river. Lake Erie, itself, was considered a dead lake. Now, Lake Erie is known for quality fishing and there are steelhead runs up the river that used to burn.

When I was a kid, the town dumped raw sewage into the small river that runs through my hometown in Minnesota. The town dump was right on the bank of the river, so garbage ended up in the water. As for fish, there might have been some carp, but that’s about it. Now that same stream is a destination for canoeists, and it’s known for smallmouth bass and even brown trout. 

Incidentally, 50 years later, at age 75, Hayes is president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, and continues to advocate for the environment, though his focus is more on climate change and renewable energy. He’s full of optimism, saying, “We’re on the way to developing technologies for a truly sustainable, resilient planet. Already, stunning things have happened like long-range electric vehicles and sustainable buildings.”

This spring, when the world is, in many ways, shut down because of the coronavirus epidemic, we’re having some interesting discoveries as a result of economic slowdown.

In Venice, Italy, without the constant churning of cruise ships and other boat traffic, the water in the canals has cleared and porpoises have been spotted exploring the waterfront.

In the northern state of Punjab, in India, people can see the snowcapped peaks of the Himalaya Mountains from as far as 100 miles away, the first time in over 30 years that people could see the mountains from that distance.

Satellite images of the east coast here in the United States show a marked decrease in air pollution because auto traffic is drastically less during the current shutdown. 

This year, Earth Day is a good time for family backyard projects. 

A simple project could be to dig up a chunk of lawn and turn it into a wildflower garden. Once established, it will take less water and fertilizer, and attract pollinators such as honeybees and butterflies.

Always remember that this is the only planet we’ll ever live on. Take care of it.

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