My participation in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 evolved in a convergence of social vectors. Among them was this Apollo 8 photograph of Earth above a lunar landscape by astronaut William Anders.
After viewing the photograph I felt conflicts and maladies in society were insignificant compared with what we have in common within our tiny, shared ecosystem suspended in the dark vastness of space. The photograph and its wide publication were a call to action to work for a common good. I still feel that way. It makes sense.
By spring 1970 we had witnessed the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre, and renewed bombing of North Vietnam. We watched the violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. We saw bits of Woodstock and Altamont in the media. We also landed men on the moon and returned them safely to Earth. At this convergence I didn’t know what to do, so joined with some high school classmates who were organizing Earth Day events. Earth Day was a common denominator.
What has Earth Day become?
Last week the Johnson County Board of Supervisors proclaimed April 17 through 23 Earth Week and announced two related events: an energy fair, and a local foods panel.
The focus on energy, CO2 emissions particularly, is well placed. We continue to use the atmosphere as an open sewer, discharging millions of tons of the greenhouse gases into it daily. Any reduction in electricity usage benefits the environment, even if the changes needed to solve the problem are trickier to accomplish than changing light bulbs.
Our food system is an obvious pick for Earth Day. Nine percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is a commonplace people need food to live, and the merging of Earth Day with the local food movement is an expected assimilation within normal spring activities. There are few better ways of appreciating Earth than getting one’s hands dirty in the ground, and spring in the Northern hemisphere is a great time to do it. It’s tough to see how planting a few trees, flowers or vegetables will rescue the environment, but as with electricity usage, every bit helps.
There is an entire menu of Earth Day related activities in our county.
Quoting Albert Camus in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar described why the 2016 election is important,
“This is no longer a prayer but a demand to be made by all peoples to their governments — a demand to choose definitively between hell and reason.” That is what the stakes of this election are: We are choosing between hell and reason.
In 1970 I thought we were already living a form of hell and the Earthrise photograph gave us hope. I would not have believed that in 2016 the Age of Reason itself would be on the brink of dissolution.
The good news is solutions to the climate crisis are working, particularly in the development of alternatives to fossil fuels to generate electricity and industrial power. The challenge is everything on our blue-green sphere is connected in a single ecosystem. What I do in my back yard has implications for living creatures around the planet.
Individuals in the U.S. are willing to do their part and what’s lacking is no secret: the political will to do straightforward things like ratify the Paris Agreement. Negotiated by 195 states within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the agreement addresses greenhouse gases emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance starting in the year 2020. Some 120 nations are expected to sign when the agreement opens for signature this Earth Day.
Will the United States be among them? It’s an open question. Many politicians have indicated the United States should not participate in the agreement at all. Their rational doesn’t make sense, and that’s what Abdul-Jabbar was getting at. Reason the way most understand it is not in vogue in parts of our government.
Politics aside, Earth Day is a chance to revisit this iconic photograph. When we consider the big picture, as the photograph encourages us to do, little has changed since it was taken. Our troubles seem petty compared to the overriding fact we live on our only home and it’s much smaller than we often see.