People all over the world plaster their social media with stunning pictures of ancient sea turtles, budding flowers, or placid seascapes. We pause to appreciate creation in all its glory. We pledge to use less, recycle more. We are inspired.
It’s #EarthDay2016 after all.
But as I surf the Internet and enjoy these gorgeous posts, I can’t help but wonder.
Have we forgotten that Earth Day is more than a hashtag?
We have Gaylord Nelson to thank for the idea of Earth Day. Nelson, a United States Senator and Democrat, had already earned a reputation as a “conservation governor.” While at the helm of his home state, Nelson secured money to purchase public parks and wilderness recreation areas. He revamped the state's natural resource program. He started a Youth Conservation Corps to create environmentally oriented jobs for over 1,000 unemployed young people. People really liked these measures. His popularity led to his election to the national scene in 1962.
Nelson arrived in Washington only to learn that the national government had no cohesive environmental agenda. So he set about to change that. In 1969 he conceived of the idea for a "national day for the environment.” He recruited Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair. They brought in Denis Hayes from Harvard and together they created a network of volunteers to promote conservation events across the United States. On April 22, 1970, twenty million Americans took part in rallies in parks and campuses all over the country. The protests brought together environmentalists of all stripes. Some were concerned about conservation. Others about oil spills, dangerous pesticides, or leaking landfills. Lots of people were focused on animal extinction.
The first Earth Day put massive pressure on the federal government to address environmental issues as a policy matter. It also helped instill in Americans a sense of moral accountability for the use of resources. It didn’t matter if you were a Republican, Democrat, or Independent. It certainly didn’t matter if you were educated. Or rich or poor. What mattered is that people took a stand because they cared about the air they breathed and the water they drank. They cared about animals. The care of creation mattered because it affected all living things, everywhere, all the time.
Nelson knew this. He once said “Environment is all of America and its problems. It is rats in the ghetto. It is a hungry child in a land of affluence. It is housing not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit."
I worry that today we’ve lost that will to demand action when it comes to environmental problems. To take a stand. To protest wrong things. Communities across the globe are struggling with the legacy of toxic time bombs such as aging water pipes, corroded infrastructure, deteriorating landfills, or hidden dump sites. These problems are poisoning people and the environment. Sure, there’s lots of hand-wringing going on. We grouse. We complain. We worry. We say, “hey, that’s not right,” and re-post pictures of dirty water or polluted soils.
And then, too often, we move on the next hashtag. The next post.
Where’s the willingness to stand up and say: "Let's change this." Or, “Let’s not leave the steps of the Governor’s mansion until this problem is addressed.” Where’s the desire to channel the anger about these wrong things into action? Perhaps #EarthDay2016 can serve as a day where people of all backgrounds gather peaceably to bring awareness to specific issues in their community. What are top ten emerging or existing problems around you that need to be addressed? Are you satisfied with the answers you’re getting? Where can you plug in locally? Where can you serve?
#EarthDay is indeed a celebration of the natural world. It’s a time to pause and admire the glory of creation. A time to thank the Creator. But let’s never forget that #EarthDay is also a call to action.