Published on
The Capital Times (Madison, Wis.)

Recalibrating Our Goals on 40th Earth Day

John Heritage

Forty years ago, we celebrated the first Earth Day. I was the environmental assistant to the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who founded the event and charged me to make it happen.

The project began when the former Wisconsin governor called Chuck Conconi, his press secretary, and me into his office in September 1969. He told us: “See what you can do about having environmental teach-ins on college campuses around the country on the same day next spring.”

Sensing a tremendous opportunity on behalf of the environment, I made it my mission to transform the idea into a national success, using the senator’s public visibility to drive the launch of this vast event. I worked 16 hours a day gaining media attention for the idea, then organizing the rapid response in communities, schools and campuses.

On April 22, 1970, about 20 million people participated in this country alone. Nelson was justifiably pleased. He had made protecting the environment his career, and it seemed that the USA, the world’s chief polluter, was ready to lead a cleanup revolution.

But despite new pollution control agencies in the U.S. and globally, hundreds of new laws and regulations, and the growth of environmental organizations lobbying and setting cleanup goals, the ecological health of the U.S. and much of the world has gotten worse. We now face the granddaddy of all pollution tangles: the warming world climate, degradation of the oceans, decimation of tropical forests, the elimination of mountaintops by coal digging, and the loss of habitats and species. At the same time, the supply of sanitary water around the world has been squeezed by the juggernaut of human population. How long can this go on?

Indeed, the moderate environmental crisis on the first Earth Day has become a wake-up call for the human race as the event’s 40th anniversary approaches. With powerful clarity, the message is coming across that something is grievously wrong. A common trouble is economic systems that are inimical to the environment and modest, efficient resource use. Even national environmental organizations often play by the system’s rules, making compromises with principles as they lobby Congress for least-bad solutions.

Given the record of the last 40 years, the focus of this Earth Day should be to initiate widespread discussions on policies that break from the present environmental quagmire and respect ecological rules. The key word is “sustainability”: practices to follow that don’t endanger the planet’s life-support systems.

In fact, numerous cases exist in which individuals, communities and even nations are taking steps to live in long-term harmony with the natural environment. A few examples:

• Food: Supporting farming practices that don’t wear out the soil, maintaining genetic diversity, and shifting to lower-food-chain diets.

• Population: Having smaller families by using birth control.

• Transportation: Investing in technology and land use planning to reduce the travel need.

• Residential: Shading and insulating homes and businesses to reduce heating and cooling needs.

• Energy: Investing in nonpolluting sources of energy and reducing overall energy needs.

This Earth Day urgently needs to advocate such methods for the health and safety of our planetary home. Copenhagen resulted in some initiatives, such as greater protection of forests, but it did not meet the challenge. While it is considering cap-and-trade and other controls on climate warming, Congress is as far from fundamental environmental reform as it ever has been. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has recently declared greenhouse gases major pollutants to regulate, but industry is already fighting the step.

Famed environmental scientist Rene Dubos said, “Think globally; act locally.” Will the innovators and risk-takers step forward and demonstrate what Dubos meant, with his emphasis on more tender care of the Earth built on a foundation of individual and community initiatives, boldly challenging the status quo? The goal would be a sustainable quality of life, and wiser management of nature’s wealth and productivity. To honor Sen. Nelson and his profound understanding of ecological limitations, the time between now and April 22 would be ideal to begin exploring such an environmentally benign system of human living.

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John Heritage of Fairfax, Va., was the spearhead on the staff of Sen. Gaylord Nelson for the first Earth Day and was editor of the US EPA Magazine from 1983 to 1993.

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