What does Earth Day mean in 2014?
“At a conference in Seattle in September 1969, I announced that in the spring of 1970 there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment and invited everyone to participate. The wire services carried the story from coast to coast. The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters.” ~ Gaylord Nelson
The media loved the story. In 1969, when Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis) called for the first Earth Day, people were ready for the revolution. It was the era of movements and teach-ins, and he spoke to a populace primed by Vietnam War protests and the Civil Rights movement. Americans were awakening to the costs of rapid industrialization. Soils were contaminated, waterways sterile and sometimes on fire, animals disappearing, and acid rain visibly eroding the stone and metal of cities. Rachel Carson’s message of a “Silent Spring” had been sinking in for eight years (selling half a million copies).
Nelson fomented environmental protest across the country, declared April 22, 1970 a day of nation-wide teach-ins on the crisis of the environment, and turned everyone loose to invent their own movement. It took on a life of its own. When the day arrived, twelve thousand loosely connected events involved millions of citizens, many at high schools and universities. Reflecting on it many years later, Nelson wrote, “That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”
The next few years ushered in the Environmental Protection Agency (created by none other than President Richard Nixon), the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Universities invented programs of environmental study. In the United States, the movement won victories on highly visible fronts.
Today’s Earth Day events are much more organized, but have lost the edge of grassroots fervor. It is hard to imagine a senator precipitating mass outrage over the environment in this decade. Perhaps today’s battles to hold back climate change and the steady drain of biological diversity feel less tangible, less immediate, than the pollution of the 70s, and sometimes literally far away, in other countries. At some point, environmentalism crystallized out of the messy soup of social justice activism and acquired an unwelcome taint of privilege and frivolity. What does Earth Day mean in 2014?
At Washington, DC’s Union Station, NASA has inflated a large, hollow hemi-globe. Inside, travelers mingle with school kids and NASA employees, driving simulated Mars rovers, tracking satellites, and watching data displayed on a globe.
Booths offer puzzles, games, electronics, and models to assemble. In the corner, two women demonstrate precipitation measurement from orbit and from the ground with a small diorama, a graduated cylinder, and a tablet computer. A raindrop-shaped handout explains the water cycle and the newly launched Global Precipitation Measurement international satellite mission.
There are stickers (everyone loves stickers) and holographic postcards displaying first the nightscape of the United States, then the nitrogen dioxide concentrations, and finally the population density by county. It’s all rather fun and beautiful, and the kids seem wide-eyed. A shy third grader helps me assemble a jigsaw image of the US capital and the Potomac’s confluence with the Anacostia, captured from 700 kilometers up by Landsat 7.
John Grunsfeld , NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, bounds onto a stage backed by a photograph of the earth seen from orbit.
I’ve been to space four times, he tells the kids seated obediently around him, because I’m an astronaut. Space is really cool, but the most beautiful thing you see is the earth. From space we can see the whole planet, and how it changes. That’s what we do at NASA, he says: observe change on earth.
The presentations that follow him are titled “Believe It or Not, Spring is Coming Earlier!” and “Our Planet is Changing: Perspective from Space.”
Banners hang around the main hall of the train station (which is powered by wind, we learn) displaying time series of development and landscape change observed by Lansat satellites. Nearby, an Earth Day booth from the embassy of Bolivia offers pamphlets and video about environmental conferences in Bolivia, agitating for social justice activism on global change.
“How many earths do we have?” asks Grunsfeld. A passing traveler holds aloft his index finger. One.
Roundup of Earth Day events and activities:
- The National Science Foundation is taking the opportunity to celebrate biodiversity with a slide-show of economic connections and a video.
- The Environmental Protection Agency asks you to pick 5 actions for the environment and make everyday Earth Day.
- The US Fish and Wildlife’s Northeast Region suggests helping pollinators, planting native plants, and restoring urban green spaces.
- PBS will re-air A Fierce Green Fire, about the history of the environmental movement in the USA tonight. (Not the same as the Emmy-award-winning Green Fire documentary about Aldo Leopold, championed by Stanley Temple a few years ago, which is also airing on a smattering of public television stations).
- The American Chemical Society shared a research article about sequestering carbon dioxide in the production of marketable chemicals and materials.
- The National Resources Defense Council suggests 8 energy-saving tweaks for your home electronics and utilities.
- TED-Ed offers a collection of Earth-Day-themed TED lessons.
- Volunteermatch.org is prepared to connect you with an Earth Day activity in your locality.
- The Nature Conservancy also lists local opportunities to explore nature and volunteer.