“Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.”*
*Pogo comic strip, Earth Day, 1971
Sunday was a big day, at least for me: it was both the 48th Earth Day and my grandson’s third birthday, and I hope Jamie grows up to take good care of both of us.
Although the day seemed to lack the enthusiasm of earlier times, when many of our political leaders believed the earth needed at least some protection from human excesses, Scott Pruitt did send a short message thanking his dwindling number of Environmental Protection Agency employees for “the work you do to carry out the core responsibilities of EPA: ensuring clean air, land, and water for all Americans.” Presumably he spent the rest of his day dismantling the programs designed to do just that – programs that were a direct result of the first Earth Day in 1970.
Here are six quick takeaways about Earth Day:
- Congress: Members of that much-abused institution not only led the way, but they did so in a bipartisan manner. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin) conceived the idea for Earth Day and asked Congressman Pete McCloskey (R-California) to co-chair the event. (McCloskey, a highly decorated Marine, is still going strong at almost 91, although he announced in 2007 that the “new brand of Republicanism" had driven him from his old party).
- Students: People complained even more about college students in 1970 than they do today, as obstreperous young people organized against the Vietnam War, took over college buildings, and demonstrated across the country. Yet somehow the Earth Day organizers saw in their youthful energy and idealism the foundation on which to build a movement. They were proved right when, on April 22, 1970, 22 million people turned out across the country for environmental teach-ins and celebrations of the earth.
- Natural resources: Pruitt’s memo to his staff mentions our “natural resources” twice in the first two sentences, thus missing the whole point of Earth Day – which is for us to understand the earth as something far more than a repository of resources for humans to extract for our own benefit. In fact, the movement was a mass protest against the polluted air, dirty water, toxic dumps and extinction of wilderness and wildlife that has resulted from our insatiable quest for natural resources.
- Peace: It is no coincidence that Earth Day and the peace movement were aligned from the beginning. Not only did Nelson and McCloskey tap into the peace network that had been largely put together by young people, but the environmental movement also adopted the language of non-violence to protest the ruthlessness with which the modern world has treated the earth and our co-inhabitants, including . . .
- Indigenous peoples: who were seen, like the earth itself, in need of being subdued, domesticated, and civilized.
- And us: Much of the focus of Earth Day, and the environmental movement in general, has been on our need to treat our planet better – on saving the redwoods and protecting the polar bears and cleaning up the oceans – all of which we must do. But lest we get too caught up in our own benevolence, it’s good to remember that the earth will do just fine when we are no longer here. In fact, it may be looking forward to that day. So the ultimate message of Earth Day is not only about protecting the environment; it’s also about saving ourselves.