Earth Day Recollections for 2020*
While I don’t recall much about the first Earth Day 50 years ago except that I was at Rutgers –Newark and that it was a nice sunny day, I do remember a number of events that crystallized my thinking about environmental issues. For context, I grew up in a rural New England town (Dalton, MA), and had gone to grad school in Colorado (CU). On a Friday afternoon when I exited the biology building where I was teaching, I nearly gagged the air was so bad. That experience remains with me. Before that, the Housatonic River in my Massachusetts hometown, a paper mill town, regularly stank and in nearby Pittsfield, Silver Lake was polluted, a dumping place for General Electric with an outfall drainage of PCBs and other contaminants into the Housatonic River. It actually caught fire in 1923.
About the time I began teaching there were discussions in the news about Love Canal, which became a Niagara Falls, NY superfund site. Love Canal started out to be a model planned community, but was never developed and in the 1920s the canal became the municipal dump for Niagara Falls. During the 1940s, it became the dumpsite for two chemical companies. Some 19,800 tons of toxic waste byproducts from the manufacture of dyes, perfumes, and solvents for rubber and synthetic resins, were dumped there. In 1953, it was sold to a local school district. Then followed years of public health problems.
The Niagara Falls school board refused the company’s proposal that the deed stipulate that the land be used for park purposes only, with the school itself built nearby. A school was built there anyway. Construction breached the containment structures and heavy rain spread the toxins.
Another item I recall was the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio in 1969. While it was not the first time the river burned, this time it was featured by Times Magazine, and Cleveland became the symbol of environmental degradation. Advocacy by Mayor Carl Stokes and his brother US Congressman, Louis Stokes, played a part in the passage of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972. Cleveland State University students celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970 by marching to the river from campus. The fire, though not the first, helped bring positive change and subsequently the river’s water quality improved.
By 1969, however, the public had been primed. Publication of Rachel Carson’s bestseller Silent Spring (1962) provided background about environmental threats. As a fellow graduate student of mine noted, ‘Even if a quarter of what she writes is true, we’re in trouble’. In 1969, Gaylord Nelson, US senator from Wisconsin, witnessed the after effects of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, CA. He engaged activists for a national environmental teach-in on April 22, 1970 that became the first Earth Day. Ultimately, twenty million Americans participated – rich and poor, Democrats and Republicans, urban and rural, business and labor. By the end of 1970, the EPA was created and the Clean Air Act was passed, followed a year later by the Endangered Species Act.
Briefly, 20 years later, in 1990, Earth Day went global mobilizing more than 200 million people in 141 countries; in 2000, digital media were used to build conversations across more than 180 countries; in 2010, the Earth Day Network initiated ‘A Billion Acts of Green’ and The Canopy Project, with 75,000 global partners in 192 countries.
The goal for 2020 is to mobilize a billion people worldwide to transform the planet.
For Earth Day tips: https://www.earthday.org/earth-day-tips/. These, I think, will guide you away from full time concern with the pandemic.
Locally in another 30 years, 2050, the Abbott Marshlands will be changed as sea level rise influences the Delaware River. Over time, the salt line will migrate up the Delaware eventually to the falls at Trenton, the character of the vegetation will change, dominated by species more tolerant of brackish water as well as higher tides. Plants will need to be tolerant of increasing depth and duration of inundation as well as some salinity. Erosion due to heavy rainfalls will have reduced the bluffs; despite this, sedimentation may not keep up with sea level rise.
Today we are at a critical juncture. We are diverted by the pandemic as national environmental safeguards are being rolled back and the EPA weakened. As I write this, I am greatly saddened by the current state of politics and its environmental impacts.
Those of us who remember 1970 must rededicate ourselves to protecting the Earth. All of us need to dedicate ourselves to reducing human impacts on the Earth. We are leaving much more than footprints.
(*My historical recollections are enhanced by discussions in Wikipedia about Love Canal, the Cuyahoga River fire, Housatonic River, and Earth Day).
MA Leck, April 2020