In 1969, a massive oil spill blackened the beaches of Santa Barbara, California. A Wisconsin Senator, Gaylord Nelson, visited the site and along with several other lawmakers and activists, began the observance of what they came to call Earth Day the next spring. That’s the story as I heard it, anyway. I was a grade-schooler at the time and living in Newfoundland, so I wasn’t involved. Once my family moved back to the west coast, however, I did spend my childhood picking tarballs off of my feet and legs after every visit to the beach. Applying sunscreen before going and washing down with turpentine when we got back was just how we rolled in 1970’s Santa Barbara.
Today is the 50th anniversary of that first Earth Day, and it has to be the strangest of them all. First off, it’s pretty much all virtual. You can attend seminars online, watch premiere showings of environmentally-themed films, video-conference with various organizations and generally converse, plan and strategize what to do about all manner of global and regional threats.
The one thing you can’t actually do is to actually do something. Yeah, I know, you can still walk on a beach – in most places – and you can always take a bag with you to pick up any garbage you find. You could still plant a tree or two, provided you do it in your yard, and the recycling could always get taken out to the bin. But beyond these things, what? It’s difficult for people to get excited about protecting an environment they are not able to touch.
Given the lockdown, this Earth Day might be a good opportunity to contemplate the last 50 years. After a half-century of this heightened environmental awareness, are we any closer to a sustainable world? What does ‘sustainable’ even mean? The sea is warming and becoming more acidic; droughts, hurricanes and wildfires are now common events, with all of them getting more severe every passing year. It hasn’t all been failure, sure. There has been some success. But compared to the state of crisis that birthed the first Earth Day, every major indicator is looking worse now, and that immediately begs the question of what, if anything, has changed.
It would be easy to get in a negative spiral from here, and it’s probably just be the Covid talking anyway. Rather than going going down that path of pessimism, I’m thinking that it might be the year to get real about what can (and can’t) be done. When you see that the bulk of the environmental successes that have taken place over these 50 years have mostly been led by individuals, smaller organizations and groups, local people deeply committed to their own places, it may give you an insight into what needs to happen over the next fifty.
We are all one, it’s true, and the more you experience, the more connections you’ll find. But we are all integral pieces of our own environment, and different bioregions have different features and issues. If there is any hope for a cleaner, safer and more vibrant planet, something that we can all get together some distant April 22nd to truly celebrate, it will be because we took action in our own towns, districts and watersheds to make it happen.
The next 50 cannot look like the last 50.