Exploring The Last Green Valley: Earth Day continues to grow, change

Next Saturday is Earth Day and I wanted to share my thoughts about this special annual event and urge you to join with others in your community to celebrate our one and only planet Earth.

Each April 22, we are asked again to consider the fundamental relationship between humans and the environment we share – the environment we are ultimately responsible for.

 Earth Day started in 1970 and marked the birth of the modern environmental movement. I was a freshman in high school in 1970, and for that very first Earth Day, my school celebrated with talks, programs and a rally in support of the environment.

Forty-seven years ago, environmentalists were perhaps considered to be more local eccentrics than important voices in the community. Back then it took a brave citizen to stand up to a major employer for dumping pollution in a river.

Today it takes a fool-hearty business to willingly pollute within the harsh reality of public opinion.

Earth Day was founded by Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson after witnessing a massive oil spill in California. His goal was to infuse the emerging public awareness about air and water pollution into a national movement with the idea of a nationwide “teach-in” on the environment.

Nelson convinced Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican congressman from California, to serve as his co-chairman, and then recruited Denis Hayes from Harvard University to become the national coordinator.

Hayes organized staff from around the country and promoted events and programs. They selected a date of April 22 since it fell between college spring break and final exams.

The stage had been set for Earth Day during the 1960s as the public gradually awakened to environmental issues, including the 1962 publication of Rachael Carson’s bestseller “Silent Spring.”

 For many people, that book represented a watershed moment and clarion call for living organisms and the links between public health and pollution.

It is estimated that on April 22, 1970, up to 20 million participated in some way during the first Earth Day. They took to the streets, visited parks and listened to speakers to learn about and demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment.

Those concerned about pollution, oil spills, sewage discharging into rivers, toxic dumps, dangerous pesticides, loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife came to the realization that they had something in common — shared values of conservation.

The first Earth Day helped lead to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts.

Twenty years later Earth Day went global, mobilizing upwards of 200 million people in hundreds of countries and elevating environmental issues throughout the world.

Earth Day 1990 brought focus on recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Ten years later, at the start of a new millennium, a new campaign took shape with a focus on climate change, global warming and clean energy. Five thousand environmental groups in 184 countries reached hundreds of millions of people with a newly engaged international grassroots activism.

 A decade later, Earth Day 2010 arrived during a period of challenge for the environmental community.

Climate change deniers, deep-pocketed oil company lobbyists, reticent politicians and an increasingly apathetic public all have tested the environmental community’s resolve.

Earth Day 2017 brings yet another set of challenges to the fight for a clean and healthy environment.

As we witness proposals that would cut funds for the Environmental Protection Agency, a growing concern emerges that we will backslide from the progress we have made over the past 47 years.

Despite these challenges, today Earth Day is the largest secular observance in the world, celebrated around the globe by upwards of a billion people every year.

It is still a day with the potential to change human behavior, to trigger individual and collective action, and to provoke policy changes for the betterment of our shared world.

Next Saturday will find me miles away from my home in The Last Green Valley. I will be visiting my daughter and grandchildren at their home in Maine. But we hope to stop in Portland for a March for Science rally and program.

 Much like the first Earth Day in 1970, March for Science rallies around the country will serve as teach-ins to hold our leaders in science and government accountable to the highest standards of honesty, fairness and integrity. We’ll be celebrating the role science plays in our democracy.

As I spend Earth Day with my daughter and grandchildren, I will take a moment to make a hopeful wish for the planet they will inherit.

Yet again I am reminded of the words of John James Audubon: “A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.”

Let us work collectively here in The Last Green Valley to make every day Earth Day. I hope you’ll join me so that together we can care for, enjoy and pass on to the next generation this beautiful place we call home.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

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