Wednesday, April 28, 2010

the 40th anniversary of earth day

April 22 was the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and it  has special significance to me. It was founded by Senator Gaylord Nelson on April 22, 1970, the year of my birth.  It was the beginning of a decade where antiwar protests started to take hold all over the country, and young people used that same model of protest to grab the headlines regarding environmental causes. Last week I saw a screening of WHYY’s documentary Earth Day,  which chronicled the growth of the environmental movement in this country. The documentary was a little slow at times, but painted a honest picture of the triumphs and setbacks of the pioneers of this movement, starting with the Mother of the Environmental Movement, Rachel Carson, who published Silent Spring in 1962. A 40th anniversary edition was published in 2002 and is available on Amazon.


The founder of Earth day, Gaylord Nelson, was a passionate advocate for the environment throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He knew that A modern environmentalism had to include federal regulations and protections for the nation. He called for sweeping, immediate government regulation—including bans on pesticides, the end of the internal combustion engine, bans on ocean waste dumping, and even a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that "every person has the right to a decent environment."

A new website launched for the Earth Day 40th anniversary, Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Environmental Movement, describes how the idea of a national celebration of the earth came to pass:

As a senator, Nelson contributed to important liberal reforms but struggled for years to interest his colleagues in environmental protections. So he turned instead to the people, proposing April 22, 1970 as a day for Americans to speak out about the environmental crises they faced. Earth Day's massive public support forced politicians to see the severity of the problems and the extent of public concern. The first Earth Day galvanized Congress into creating some of the most important U.S. environmental legislation. Gaylord Nelson earned environmentalism a lasting place in national politics.


As for me, have always been very concerned with the negative effects of pollution and overpopulation on the planet’s interconnected ecosystem. When I was barely ten I had a membership to the National Wildlife Federation and I read their rather dense magazine from cover to cover every other month. James Fennimore Cooper’s lush descriptions of this country in the days when the east coast was still the birthright of many flourishing Indian tribes always enthralled me; but the books also filled me with a wistful melancholy, as if I were born too late to understand the full majesty of this continent before our American corporations had a blank check to deforest the mountains, poison the streams and rivers, and smog up the atmosphere in an effort to supply us with the good and services we were rapidly consuming in the name of the American Dream.


The documentary was interesting because it was told from the perspective of today’s leading environmental activists, who described, with the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom that age brings, about the mistakes that were made in the movement’s infancy that prevented them from capitalizing on all of that early enthusiasm after the first Earth Day. At that time, lawmakers had to respond to their constituents who were loudly protesting as they realized that we were poisoning ourselves. The large corporations and the local governments were not going to take care of us, we needed sweeping regulations to protect us from this unfettered rape of the landscape and its resources. President Jimmy Carter was a strong advocate for the environment, but his successor Ronald Reagan campaigned on a platform to make America strong again after the recession, and when he won by a landslide a stake was driven into the heart of the movement. He weakened or removed many of the regulations that had been put in place in the prior 10 years, and once again, corporations were free to pollute and rampage with impunity. As Stephanie Mills put it in Earth Day, when Reagon was elected, “we lost 30 years.” Interestingly enough, Gaylord Nelson himself lost his reelection bid in 1980, the dawn of the Reagan era, as did many of his liberal colleagues.  Although he did pass some environmental legislation, during the Reagan era, the EPA was cut to 44% of its 1970s budget and many of the existing laws were weakened in the pro-industry boom years of the 80s.

Again from the Nelson website:

Earth Day was a watershed moment for environmental politics, kicking off what is now termed the "Environmental Decade" of radical legislative reforms. After struggling to pass legislation through the 1960s, which he did but without widespread public support, Nelson was now deeply involved in many of the most important environmental protection legislation: the Clean Water Acts, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Federal Pesticides Act, the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Education Act, the National Hiking Trails and the National Scenic Trails Acts, and the establishment of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
Fast forward forty years and here we are. The Green Movement or whatever you want to call it, has gone global in a way that those early pioneers could only have dreamed. Today many ordinary folks regularly recycle, purchase organic local produce, and think before keeping extra lights on in the house. They think about gas mileage before they purchase a car, and not just to save money. Many have even, as I have done, eschewed meat altogether in an effort, to remove themselves from one of the greatest sources of global climate change, methane from cow flatulence due to their modern diet of corn rather than the one they were evolved to thrive on: grass . Add to that that there are too many cows grazing on land that should be growing staple crops to support hungry people throughout the globe, and the Western Diet of abundant meat is not only polluting, but starving, the planet. I could not find a way to justify its consumption in light of those reasons and also because of the way the animals are bred, housed and slaughtered, so I chose to opt out and become a vegetarian.  Large scale industrial farming has also made our food supply unsafe, whether you eat tainted meat, or tainted spinach grown downstream from the industrial farm, for more on this, read this fascinating article from The New York Times. 


I went to school in Boston in the 90s and worked at Harvard, so I spent a lot of time in Cambridge which was far ahead of the curve in terms of the environmental movement.  As an extension of concern about our effect on the planet, is a concern for what we ourselves consume. Again, its not just how your food and cleaning product choices affect the interconnected ecosystem, but more directly how those choices have immediate and long-term consequences on your health. After I graduated, my roommate, a somewhat reclusive lesbian who also worked at Harvard, taught me a lot about thinking before you throw something in a landfill. She was a very resourceful re-user and recycler, but the massive stone rental house was filled to the gills with her stuff.

These days I counsel friends that when you buy something, whether it be a shake at McDonalds, a razor at CVS, or take-out from a restaurant, you have created the need for packaging that you now own and are responsible for reusing or recycling. You can’t just throw it out, at least if you want to be invited back to my place for dinner. When we throw stuff out it does not just disappear. Even more resources are used carting it off to a dump where it decomposes and often creates polluted runoff or releases VOCs into the air. Not only that but we are running out of places to put this trash. It becomes a problem for not only us but for future generations. It can take 450-1000 years for your plastic container to decompose. Think about it before you buy that bottle of water.

In the early 90s I shopped at Bread and Circus and Fresh Fields and experienced how much better I felt consuming organic produce and products without refined sugars and high fructose corn syrup. The first Fresh Fields stores did not even carry any products containing refined sugar but when they were bought by Whole Foods in 1996, the standards were relaxed a bit to make room for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and some other darlings of the organic movement. I had to wait a number of years after I moved back from New England in 1995 for those trends to pick up steam in the City of Brotherly Love. And as it were there was a lot more of us Philadelphians to love, as it was one of the fattest cities in the US, and still is, though we have gotten much better. It seemed that there were no convenient ways of finding healthy options, and I was engrossed in bodybuilding at the time and thus obsessed with food. Eventually the movement caught on even in Philly and I was able to find better food choices, and of course make my own. I converted many friends and lovers over the years to understand that these choices are not only better for your health but better for your palate as well; that is once you wean your taste buds off excess sugar, unhealthy fats, and processed grains so that they can appreciate the true flavor of high quality ingredients. It gets to a point where you can’t even eat that crap again, and wonder how you did. Ask Michael Pollan.  Or Mark.

I became the recycling Nazi, known to open trashcans and pull clearly recyclable items out of them with a calm admonishment and instruction—the first time. At work I have set up a menagerie of recycling bins in the kitchen so I can take my coworkers plastic (#1 #2, and #5 for the time being), cans, paper, and used batteries to the appropriate locations for recycling. I am in the process of ordering biobags to replace the plastic and insist that our cleaning company use only biodegradable earth friendly products. My obvious zeal for conservation prompted some talk in our last company meeting.

I pointed out that I had switched the toilet paper to a better brand so we could use less of it, to which Jeff quipped, “You use toilet paper? I thought you used leaves.”

“Only when camping” I shot back, over the laughter of my co-workers.

But it does illustrate one point I have learned from doing this for years, you can’t drag the ignorant kicking and screaming into this arena. I work in the field of construction, and ignorance and apathy about the effect of our industry’s practices on the earth run rampant, especially since it is a male-dominated field and throughout history it is the men who have done most of the rape and pillaging, you can’t argue with history. At the meeting where I introduced the new recycling options; Matt, who makes a career out of trying to expend the least effort possible in whatever he does, stated loudly, “I can’t be bothered to recycle, that is such bullshit and a pain in the ass!”

This really pissed me off, especially since I was the one carting his crap away in my car. He only had to find the correct bin and drop the freakin’ bottle from his clammy little hand.

“Not when someone if offering to take your recycling out for you! I make it really fucking easy for you Matt!” I yelled, staring right at him. At that point everyone shut up and Matt stood down.



Office meeting confrontations notwithstanding, the uninitiated need to be coaxed, not pushed, towards enlightenment. It’s not always easy, but I take a piecemeal approach. I have succeeded in ending the delivery of water in single serving plastic bottles, gotten everyone recycling, and procured a cardboard recycling dumpster, but we still have along way to go. Look at the current contents of our regular dumpster (right). Carpet is a energy intensive product to produce, which means that it is an important product to recycle. However most of the textiles that are ripped from our customers floors to be replaced with new are still dumped into landfills. And the plastic sheathing around them is dumped beside them, to spend 1000 years in a landfill or in that huge plastic floating island in the middle of the ocean. I take plastic bags to whole food regularly but I don’t know of anyplace that takes large swaths of think plastic sheeting, if anyone has any info on this please send me an email.

Another item I struggle with, that you will be hearing about more and more in the coming years,  (on thr cover of Mother Jones June 2010 issue) is the overpopulation issue. People are just having too many damn babies. My father’s side of the family is half Irish, and 100% Catholic. The women get married and just keep breeding, I can’t even keep track of all those children. His brother has 9 kids and they have gone forth and multiplied exponentially. For a time, it seemed like there were baby showers every 2 weeks, thankfully they were always on weekend mornings when I am out riding my bike. I don’t think there is anything more boring than a baby shower, although bridal showers are pretty bad in my book too.

Stephanie Mills, the valedictorian of her high school class and one of the pioneers of the environmental movement featured in Earth Day, chose to use her commencement speech to warn her classmates about the problems of overpopulation which she read in Paul Ehrlich’s best-selling novel, The Population Bomb. She said that the best thing they could do to express their concern for the planet was not to have children, and she never did. The speech sparked a national outcry. And forty years later, this article in The Huffington Post lists 7 Things You Can Do for the Earth That Actually Matter  and number 6 is  not to have a baby.

I have many reasons for not wanting children, at least right now, but biology has forced me to wrestle with this topic a bit more lately. One of my objections to the whole idea is that as someone who cares very deeply about reducing her carbon footprint and leading by example to coax others to do the same, I feel as if it would be wrong to produce an heir that will multiply said footprint for generations to come. Besides, my high school classmates are making enough babies for all of us, including a good friend of mine who is in the environmental industry (she does remediation consulting) and who is now having her third baby. I was horrified when I heard. Enough already! Nurture your own self and make yourself a better person. The more children you have, the less resources you have in terms of time, love and money to lavish on your existing children. It’s pretty simple math. I swear many couples just keep having babies because they have nothing else to do, nothing to inspire them. I am struggling with the Ennui of encroaching middle age myself, but my answer is to nourish my soul with new hobbies and interests (and maybe even new geography) like yoga, writing, and meeting new like-minded friends, some who don’t even know how to ride a bike! Imagine!

Not only that, but those who have even one child have a special responsibility, in my book, to do as much as they possibly can to reduce their use of non-renewable resources, and to instruct their children to do the same. I don’t see this, certainly not with my older sister and her brood, who are more like little macroconsumers-in-training than eager students of the Green Movement. William does collect bugs, but I'm pretty sure his father has not explained to him about global climate change and loss of habitat for these l'il creatures.

This article from ABC news gives a really good overview of the scorecard of the environmental movement in the US. We have come a long way recently but some say it’s too little too late, that we are past the tipping point.  I am not sure about this but I have to say that I am not so optimistic about the prospects for my child, if I were to have one. The GDP of the United States is 70% comprised of consumer spending. And consumer spending, measured by the Consumer Price Index, is still largely on crap made in china and automobiles and computers manufactured unsustainably and disposed of in landfills. I of course have purchased and still purchase many of these products, it is impossible not to, unless I want to live off the grid and reject most of the goods that make my life easier. (Or more complicated, as a Buddhist would say)


It’s hard to imagine that enough change can take place in first world countries and in developing nations that could turn the tide before global climate change makes this planet inhospitable for a number of species, including us. But we will never know unless enough of us join together to live greener every day. Never stop trying to live a better life. Complacency is the mother of boredom and vacuity. Bring mindfulness into your life by nourishing yourself and our ecosystem. You will bear the fruits of your efforts, as will your friends and descendants.

Ok, I’m down from my soapbox now.




Links for more reading:

For a very interesting and comprehensive timeline of the environmental movement, including such notable disasters as the burning of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, Love Canal and Three Mile Island, click here.

For some suggestions on how to eat more sustainably with properly nourished and humanely treated animals, click here

For a scorecard of polluters, click here

For a look at what happens to all of those plastic bags: here or here.

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