Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Earth Day Musings
distributed 4/22/05 - ©2005

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Ted Petranoff, of Denver, Colorado, a dedicated member of the Board of Directors of Eco-Justice Ministry. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

Thirty-five years ago, the first Earth Day launched a popular movement. Based on college campuses as a "teach in", it set out to raise awareness about a broad range of environmental problems. In 1970, "the environment" and "ecology" were foreign concepts to most people. Pollution was just emerging as a matter of general concern.

That first Earth Day helped to spread the idea that smokestacks belching pollution were not an inevitable part of an affluent society. It condemned sewers -- both municipal and industrial -- that were dumping untreated waste into rivers and lakes. Thoughtless littering and uncontrolled dumping were named as repugnant and unacceptable.

Looking back from my advancing middle age, and remembering the world of my high school and college years, I can see profound and lasting impacts from the movement that we celebrate on Earth Day. There is much to celebrate.

Two laws, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, have been the basis for a remarkable restoration of the US environment. Many forms of air pollution -- from factories and power plants, and from the tailpipes of hundreds of millions of cars -- have been dramatically reduced. Waterways that were essentially devoid of life -- the Hudson River and Lake Erie are among the most dramatic cases -- are functioning habitats again.

The first Earth Day is an event that we can name as a symbolic turning point, a moment when environmentalism took to the streets and became a mass movement. There is cause for great gratitude in the hard-fought legislative victories that came in the 1970s. There is cause for celebration in the multitudes of court cases that have enforced those laws. There is cause for celebration in the changing behaviors, both personal and collective, that are now commonplace parts of our lives -- curbside recycling, energy-efficient lighting and appliances, and public transit as a presumed element of urban design.

Thank God -- literally -- for the multitudes of committed folk who have shaped this movement, who have fought the long and bitter battles in legislatures, courts and board rooms, who have educated children, repaired habitats, cleaned up toxic wastes, and organized recycling programs!

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In 2005, there's a need to rethink Earth Day. The dynamic, passionate and influential movement of my youth is now observed half-heartedly for a few days around April 22 with a cluster of "objective" or feel-good news reports, corporate-sponsored races for joggers, a scattering of church services, and a few community educational events. There's not much passion, and there aren't big crowds.

Back when the Earth Day first began, there was a need to educate people about "the environment," and to name as problems factors that too many people saw as normal or even beneficial. But these days, most people are at least aware of some of the dramatic problems. "Global warming" is in our everyday language. Clean air and water are basic expectations, not idealistic dreams. Littering is down, and recycling is up.

People today know the basic message that was challenging in 1970. It is true that some people believe that all the problems are solved, because the air and water are cleaner. (That's like thinking that we don't need to worry about cancer because diabetes is widely treated!) Many more people know of the complex new problems that we face, and feel powerless in the face of them. The problem is not education and facts, but hope.

As the Denver Post editorialized this morning: "Three decades ago, most environmental problems could be solved with the passage of a single law. But in this century, environmental concerns involve worldwide economic and diplomatic factors as well as complicated scientific knowledge. Think global warming, for example. What's needed in this century is more than a renewed environmental ethic. What's required in a broader conception of environmentalism itself."

The Post starts in the right direction, and names population and energy policy as the two most urgent issues. Those are both tough, global issues, and need to be part of the mix. But the editors of my daily paper don't go far enough.

There's also a need to interconnect "the environment" with many other causes that are important, and that tend to have far more passionate political constituencies -- the economy, national security, health care. Ecological perspectives and the realities of environmental limits need to inform public policy on those issues, and environmentalism, in turn, needs to be shaped by a broader range of issues. That's part of the message of the recent and controversial article, "The Death of Environmentalism." The authors of that article propose, for example, that the absence of affordable health care is one factor in why US automakers push high-profit SUVs and don't do more research on high-efficiency cars. The benefits given to autoworkers needs to be an "environmental" issue.

A vibrant environmental movement in 2005 needs to have the sort of depth and vision that religious communities are best suited to name. Not only do we need to stop pollution, we need to challenge the rampant consumerism that is depleting the world's resources -- and we need to do that with a hopeful vision of a richer life with less stuff. Environmentalism needs to see beyond beautiful amenities for a privileged few, and speak clearly about justice and sufficiency for all members of the global community.

An environmental movement in these days needs to offer real hope and effective transformation. Political activism is certainly necessary in these days when core environmental laws are being overturned in Congress and in courts, but we need a broader array of strategies. Corporate shareholder resolutions are making a real difference on global climate decisions. Voluntary simplicity is an effective strategy of resistance, as well as a valuable personal choice. Education, arts and media are powerful tools for shaping awareness and values.

In 1970, "teach ins" provided the spark for a powerful and effective movement. We still benefit from their impressive results. In 2005, we need a new expression of a powerful and effective movement, one that can dig even deeper into the core problems, push even harder for challenging solutions, and energize folk with hope for change.

May we all rise to the great challenges of this time. And may churches play a leading role in energizing that concern, building compassion and commitment, and generating hope.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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