In 1970, when Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., came up with the idea for the first day to bring attention to environmental pollution, the state of our nation’s air and water was in crisis. To say the very least.
The Cuyahoga River routinely caught on fire due to industrial pollution.
Let me repeat that for the folks in the back row. A river in Cleveland routinely caught on fire because it was so polluted by the oil, industrial sludge and sewage that had accumulated since the Civil War.
And that was just the price the citizens collectively agreed to pay for thriving industry that offered good jobs to the community.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, the tide changed when manufacturing started to leave Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s. Without the economic incentive of 60,000 manufacturing jobs to look the other way, Clevelanders started to raise a ruckus about the pollution left behind.
And other communities started to raise their own ruckuses about the environmental concerns in their backyards, from overlogging forests to oil spills, to trash along the highways and in our parks.
The nation had a bit of a crisis. And Earth Day was the call to action it needed at that time.
Five decades later, while we’ve made great strides, the environment is still a pressing concern for many American voters.
We don’t have burning rivers because we took steps to stop industrial pollution. We have rebounding wildlife populations because we took steps to conserve species and their habitat. We have cleaner air because we took steps to make more efficient use of energy and put mitigation measures in place.
We can agree, those are good things. In moderation.
But I’m afraid that the environmental movement of yesterday has tipped into extremes today.
See, you can’t reset the world to zero. Humanity’s very presence affects the environment.
It’s admirable to strive for better, but we have to be realistic. We have to be sustainable.
This Earth Day and those of tomorrow, we need to spend reminding our neighbors that saving the environment is a great goal. But we need to ask ourselves: Are the measures we’re taking sustainable for people as well as the environment?
I mean, what good is clean air and water if people are out of work and can’t provide for their families?
Humanity’s survival depends on creation and destruction in equal measure. Anyone who’s see the prairie come to life after a wildfire understands this balance.
Now, in the last 50 years, we’ve made great strides to improve our methods of farming to reduce waste. To be more efficient in our use of natural resources, and to protect and replenish those resources as best as we can. We’ve studied livestock, and we’ve created standards for animal welfare that provide for the animal as well as the human caretaker.
These measures are economically, environmentally and sociologically sustainable. And that’s what we need to emphasize this Earth Day and on future Earth Days.
Earth Day need not be a contentious day on the calendar. Not if we start to emphasize sustainability and balance in our efforts to conserve this planet of ours.