Going Nature's Way
On April 22 we will celebrate the 44th anniversary of Earth Day. But what does that mean? An entire generation has been born and grown to adulthood since that day, and to them it may be a bit of history as blurry as the Vietnam War, which was still being waged in 1970.
I imagine there are people who believe this event was created by a bunch of flower child hippies, when it fact it was Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson who is considered the founder of Earth Day. Oh, how times change. Previously, Nelson had been known as the “Conservation Governor” in Wisconsin because of his policies that brought about change in the Department of Natural Resources, initiated a Youth Conservation Corps with a thousand new "green" jobs and worked to improve and expand the state parks and wilderness areas.
When he got to Congress, Nelson continued his crusade with stunning results, however it was not his fellow congressmen who made this happen to begin with. In fact, he found little support from them. Working with college students all over the country, the senator envisioned a day that would be grassroots based and that’s what happened. He hoped Earth Day would create "a new national coalition whose objective is to put quality for human life on a par with Gross National Product." The key part of this statement I think is "human life," because somehow in the years since that first Earth Day, words like "tree hugger" and "environmentalist" came to imply people who only cared for other forms of life, not humans. And that is absolutely untrue.
After the midterm elections of 1970, many politicians who were associated with polluting industries were defeated. Richard Nixon, a Republican president, recognized the strength of public opinion and, along with Congress, established the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and stringent amendments to the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.
As a result, our air and waterways improved significantly. Unfortunately, these particular acts continue to this day to be challenged by those who would prefer fewer regulations on their industries. But each April, there is a surge of good feelings and public relations around the environment. It is a day when we are encouraged to do something "good" for the earth: Recycling, cleaning up a shoreline, riding bikes or walking instead of driving; lots of little personal acts we can each do in an effort to reduce our personal "footprint."
The question is how many people continue to keep that focus and attention on the environment for the next 364 days of the year? Obviously for Mike and I, our every working day was in some way focused on keeping people engaged with the environment and learning more about it, to understand its complexities, as well as its beauty. Thankfully, we know of hundreds of young people we taught and mentored over the decades who have continued along this path. It is a path that does not lead to membership in the top 1 percent income level — far from it — but it is a path that gives one a sense of engagement in critical issues for the survival of our species. Yes, our species, as well as all the other organisms we share the earth with who are completely dependent on our actions and choices. As for the earth, I believe we all understand it can go on without us, just as it did before we arrived.
All of us who care about our children, and their children, and their children’s children understand the importance of leaving an earth that is habitable. Sen. Gaylord Nelson died in 2005. I’m sure it was frustrating for him to see the same battles being waged over and over, yet he continued to work for the betterment of people through a better environment. In a speech he gave on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day he said, "The opportunity for a gradual but complete break with our destructive environmental history and a new beginning is at hand ... We can measure up to the challenge if we have the will to do so — that is the only question. I am optimistic that this generation will have the foresight and the will to begin the task of forging a sustainable society."
I hope you will think about his words this April 22, that you will take them to heart and that you will go out to be inspired by the natural beauty we are so fortunate to have here in East Central Minnesota. Love it and defend it.