Today, April 22, is Earth Day.
Here at Planet Experts, we do our best to report on why the environment matters every single day – so if we wanted to be cheeky, we could point to any one of our 1,400 articles (and counting) and say that’s what Earth Day is all about. But between you, us and this blue sky, that’s a lot of reading material for a Wednesday morning.
So here are less than 1,400 words to explain why Earth Day matters.
Because We Needed It
In January 1969, an oil rig in Southern California’s Santa Barbara Channel suffered a blow-out. Over the next 10 days, more than 3.2 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the Channel, washing up on the shores of Santa Barbara and killing scores of seabirds, seals and dolphins. It was the worst oil spill in U.S. history at the time, though that title would later be usurped by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and then the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Though the ’69 Santa Barbara spill was a tremendous blow to the marine environment, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claims that it galvanized a wave of environmental legislation from Congress. For a fact, it inspired Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to introduce the Earth Day bill in 1969.
The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22 the very next year. An estimated 20 million Americans showed up in streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate for the environment; protests were held across thousands of universities and colleges. “Earth Day is dramatic evidence of a broad new national concern that cuts across generations and ideologies,” said Sen. Nelson in a speech delivered in Denver, Colorado.
To Nelson, Earth Day was about much more than the abstract concepts of hugging a tree or using a little less water. The threats to the planet’s ecology, to its air and waters, to its inhabitants, were part of everyday life.
“Environment is all of America and its problems,” said Nelson. “It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing that is not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.”
Nelson went further, saying that the environment “is a problem perpetuated by the expenditure of $17 billion a year on the Vietnam War, instead of on our decaying, crowded, congested, polluted urban areas that are inhuman traps for millions of people.”
In a sentiment that is as surprisingly modern as it is woefully unrealized, Nelson added that the goal of Earth Day “is a new American ethic that sets new standards for progress, emphasizing human dignity and well being rather than an endless parade of technology that produces more gadgets, more waste, more pollution.”
Yet here’s where we come to the nub of it. How close is America to achieving that goal? It could be argued that America has fallen farther behind.
Because We Still Need It
LiveScience claims that Earth Day drummed up public support for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act and the Endangered Species Act. Yet despite that initial achievement, it has failed to preserve its momentum.
Today, the very principles that established Earth Day are under attack. And that’s no idle claim from Planet Experts. Those are the exact words of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. In January, McCarthy said, “Science is under attack like it has never been before.”
McCarthy was referring to the anti-climate change propaganda fueled by the likes of libertarian industrialists the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council. She may as well have been referring to the 56 percent of Congressional Republicans who dispute or deny climate change; the $721 million of fossil fuel money that elected them; their legislation to eliminate national parks; and the state of Florida, which has banned officials from using the words “climate change” or “global warming.”
And Florida is not alone in this absurdity. Just this month, it was decided by Wisconsin’s Board of Commissioners of Public Lands that its staff members cannot discuss global warming or climate change. What prompted the decision? The fact that the Board’s executive secretary, Tia Nelson, was asked by the state’s former governor to co-chair a global warming task force – something a fellow Board member said conflicted with the Board’s business (which is to oversee state lands, combat forest fragmentation and protect natural areas).
The ultimate irony is that Tia Nelson is the daughter of Sen. Gaylord Nelson.
“It honestly never occurred to me that being asked by a sitting governor to serve on a citizen task force would be objectionable,” she said.
Because It’s Just One Day
You don’t have to believe in climate change to understand that pollution kills. Beijing’s air pollution is now so high that it’s leaping off scientists’ charts, and China’s smog is so bad it’s degraded 40 percent of the country’s farmland and led to the deaths of over half a million people. China’s Environmental Ministry has acknowledged these problems as stemming from its rapid industrialization and has resolved to fight a “war against pollution” to end them.
In the U.S., air quality is much better, but that wasn’t always so. In 1948, a toxic fog was formed from the combined emissions of local factories in Donora, Pennsylvania and, due to a freak weather occurrence, hovered over the town for nearly a week. By the time a low pressure system moved in and the smog was dispersed, 20 people had been killed and an estimated 7,000 were ill or hospitalized. Police and firefighters actually had to run from house to house with oxygen tanks to save people. Donora today remembers the incident as the time of the “Big Smog.”
And pollution has been with human civilization for much longer than the last century. The infamous “London fog” was nothing of the sort. It was actually a mixture of fog, coal smoke and other noxious materials belched up by the newly-industrialized city.
Los Angeles has suffered from smog that attacked residents’ eyes and throats and required them to stay off the roads and indoors for sometimes days at a time. However, a recent study has shown that improvements in regulation, combined with environmental initiatives, has improved the health of LA county children. From 1977 onward, the number of Stage 1 ozone episodes in Los Angeles has declined from 121 per year to none.
By regulating emissions, ocean dumping and the materials used to manufacture furniture, human health can significantly improve. That reason alone should be enough to give one day of the year over to thinking about what the Earth means and how much of it we’ll give to our children.
The Global Footprint Network has calculated that it would take 1.5 Earths to support how much of its resources we consume every year. In 1961, humanity had its appetites in check, consuming only three-quarters of the planet’s annual resources. At present, we’re running an ecological deficit, consuming the entirety of our annual resources in the first three-quarters of the year.
What does ignoring this metric mean? “It means severe food and water shortages along with increasingly frequent extreme weather events and natural disasters,” Keya Chatterjee of the World Wildlife Fund told CBS News.
Earth Day matters because the Earth matters, and it’s the only one we have.
Economist and Planet Expert Timothy Yee said it best, “When you face a world that cannot exist if we keep going the way things are going, I think change is necessary. And I’m sorry that some people don’t agree, but I certainly am not going to be the first person living on the moon. It doesn’t seem too nice up there.”