Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, April 23, 2007

Earth Day 2007

Today's For the Birds script:
This year’s Earth Day marks something of a sea change from recent years—so many people are suddenly fired up about the issue of climate change, many ignited by the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, that we seem to be having the kind of widespread and serious discussions about the quality of the earth’s environment that we had back in 1970, the year of the original Earth Day.

I was a freshman in college then, and played a minute role in the planning of the University of Illinois’s first Earth Day celebration. Working with the idealists who got the ball rolling awakened my own environmental awareness and sparked my own idealism.
Portrait of the artist as a young idealist (1969) (Well, it's my prom photo from high school. But I don't have a single photo of myself from my entire freshman or sophomore years in college, so it will have to do.)

And that was an excellent time for idealists—there were both plenty of clear and obvious dangers associated with the environment AND plenty of honest, well-informed, articulate and passionate people willing to speak out about them. Rivers such as the Cuyahoga in Ohio were literally catching fire. Soapsuds floated up from the little creek in my neighborhood in a Chicago suburb from the heavy phosphate load from detergents. Within hours after any snowfall, a black sooty crust coated snow piles in cities and suburbs both. Peregrine Falcons had been obliterated from the entire continent east of the Rocky Mountains. Bald Eagles and Osprey were no longer successfully breeding and so rapidly disappearing. Even without 24-7 news and the Internet, there was plenty of time on the nightly news and plenty of space in newspapers and magazines for these disturbing stories to be covered. And back then, balanced reporting meant that reporters tried to find out the actual truth rather than give both sides of every argument equal time and space and credibility. In the case of pesticides, there were enormous pressures by the chemical industry to force such corporate magazines as Time and Readers Digest to ridicule and dismiss Rachel Carson and her work, but the vast numbers of objective scientists whose research backed up Carson’s words were still able to speak out and be heard above the financial interests of the time.

By 1970, much of the debate was pretty much over, and all that was left was to get legislation hammered out that would actually solve some of the problems. We were in the middle of a conservative Republican administration, yet the national consensus was so huge that environmental issues were truly non-partisan. After all, everyone, regardless of party affiliation or political beliefs, needs clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. So even with the Vietnam War raging and other pressing national and international issues in the Watergate era, Congress passed and the Nixon Administration signed into law the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, established the Environmental Protection Agency, banned DDT in the United States, lowered the speed limit, established fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, and required automakers to start manufacturing cars that drove on unleaded gasoline.

These laws were extremely effective, making huge changes within years and even, in some cases, months. And so naturally there was a collective sigh of relief. We’d had our national house-cleaning and were ready to kick up our feet and take a break.

But even the tidiest house gets messy if you don’t keep up with it. We started producing new pesticides. Congress provided a loophole so that SUVs and minivans could be defined as light trucks and thus didn’t need to comply with the same emission or gas consumption guidelines as passenger vehicles. And by the 1980s, we were simply no longer enforcing the environmental laws with nearly the same vigor as we’d done in the 70s, even in some cases watering down regulations. We’re still better off than before 1970 in many ways, but we’re again losing ground every day.

But on this Earth Day, 2007, I’m hopeful for a repeat of 1970. It will take hard work and sacrifice to change things. But the combination of the increasingly obvious deterioration of the environment right now along with honest, well-informed, passionate, articulate spokespeople speaking out for our planet may very well precipitate a new national focus on protecting this planet that every one of its inhabitants, human and animal, depends upon, from our first to our last breath.
Listen to the program here.