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

Earth Day XXXVII
distributed 4/21/06 - ©2006

This weekend, the 37th Earth Day will be observed in communities around the world. Back in 1970, for the first Earth Day, I helped lead the teach-in events at my high school.

It makes me feel rather old to realize that most of the people living in the US were born after that historic occasion. It also makes me aware that those younger generations need to hear the stories and understand the context of that event. A fresh historical awareness of those long-ago days may help us all find new direction and energy for this Earth Day, and for our contemporary environmental activism.

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The label of "Founder of Earth Day" has been given to Gaylord Nelson, the US Senator from Wisconsin between 1963 and 1981. Nelson wrote that, even before his election in 1962, "it had been troubling to me that the state of our environment was simply a non-issue in the politics of our country."

His early attempts to put the issue on the political agenda -- including a five-day, eleven-state "conservation tour" that he organized for President Kennedy in the fall of 1963 -- didn't do it. He wrote that "the environmental issue simply was not to be found on the nation's political agenda. The people were concerned, but the politicians were not."

Six years later, in 1969, Nelson looked at the protests against the Viet Nam war which were taking place on college campuses, often in the form of "teach-ins," and envisioned a similar strategy for environmental protest. In a short history of Earth Day, he wrote:

If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the political agenda. ... The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters. ... The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air -- and they did so with spectacular exuberance. ... Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. ... That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.
People who had been working on a variety of environmental issues saw that they were part of a much larger cause, and people who hadn't been involved found an outlet for their concern. That outpouring of civic activism, and the mobilizing of a broad political base helped bring about powerful legislation, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act.

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Many people trace the real start of the modern environmental movement, not to Earth Day, but to Rachel Carson's publication of Silent Spring in 1962. It took eight years for that growing awareness to catch hold and blossom into the street protests and campus events of the first Earth Day. But when it did, 20 million demonstrators -- over 10% of the US population -- spontaneously grabbed the Earth Day occasion to expand and empower that movement. It was an event that carried the spirit of the 1960s.

The 60s were tumultuous times. The anti-war activism at the end of the decade came on the heels of the profound transformations achieved by the non-violent civil rights movement, and of the violent race riots that followed. Historian Adam Rome notes the growing activism of middle class women, and a counterculture raised in fear of the bomb and the planet's end, as factors in the growth of the environmental movement in the 60s.

A book review in the most recent Scientific American contrasts those days of Silent Spring and that first Earth Day with our contemporary setting in the face of climate change. Close parallels are drawn between Elizabeth Kolbert (author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change) and Rachel Carson, including their scientific authority, literary skills and the timeliness of the issues they raise. The reviewer tells us of environmental historian Rome's description of the 1960s. She then writes:

Field Notes from a Catastrophe is not arriving on a similar scene. There is not much widespread U.S. protest about anything -- not about the war with Iraq, not about the administration's links to oil and other industry, not about the diminishing of our civil rights. It is strangely quiet here.
I'm not sure it is "strangely quiet." Just three years ago, efforts to stop the Iraq war brought out the largest protests in the history of the world. Internet-based activism has a huge constituency engaged on a wide range of political issues. And the last few weeks have seen an explosion of street protests about immigration. There is political noise.

What I hear from many sources, though, is a lack of hope that those political efforts will really make a difference. We come to this Earth Day with an intense discouragement about political change. Those massive anti-war protests three years ago could not stop the US from invading Iraq. The last two presidential elections in this country have been of questioned legitimacy. The influence of corporate lobbyists is openly acknowledged, and only vaguely challenged. There's lots of political noise, but it isn't making a difference.

It is helpful to remember that it took eight years to go from Silent Spring to the explosive intensity of the first Earth Day. That event blossomed -- "it organized itself" -- because the deep anger and concern among the citizens was finally joined with an event that lifted up the possibility of real transformation.

The brilliance of Gaylord Nelson's idea for Earth Day was to build upon the change strategies that were already making a difference in 1969. To be equally brilliant today, we need to discern where and how real change is happening in 2006, and join forces with those effective movements and trends.

In today's world, we need to see that national politics is not the only avenue for change. The latest Vanity Fair -- in a special "Green Issue" -- profiles a wide variety of state and local politicians, corporate executives, publishers, scientists, legal experts, artists and "e-gitators" who they describe as calling for "a new American revolution." It is noteworthy that there are few national politicians among those change agents.

Our challenge in 2006 is not to re-create the street protests and teach-ins of the 1970 Earth Day, because we don't live in that political and social world. The challenge is to rebuild a spirit of genuine hope, to discern where concerned citizens do hold transformational power, and to use that power effectively for the healing of the earth.

As people of faith, we hold up our belief that God is always at work in the world. I live out of the deep hope that we do live in a time when God's transforming spirit is eager to move and work within us in new and creative ways.

May we be open to all of the opportunities that God sets before us. And may we never lose hope.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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