My memory of the first Earth Day in 1970 are vague. I was consumed with the task of choosing a major, required of sophomores at my small southern Minnesota college. The world was already crammed with urgent issues. Legislation for Civil Rights (1964), Voting Rights (1965) and Fair Housing (1968) was new, with frequent battles to implement it. Political violence was a reality in America, with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assassinated just two years before. Demonstrations, whether about the Vietnam War, civil rights, poverty, or other issues, often prompted armed responses. Just 12 days later, Ohio National Guardsmen shot 13 students at an anti-war protest at Kent State; four died. Environmentalism seemed less urgent; many thought Earth Day would be a one-time event.
But students rallied and learned across the country. We saw images of the Cuyahoga River on fire as it flowed through Cleveland and smog darkening the sky over Pittsburgh. We learned about species disappearing and environmentally-related diseases like black- and brown-lung and mesothelioma increased. Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, was right: the country was ready for environmental action. Within a few years, the Environmental Protection Agency had been created and Acts for Environmental Protection (1970), Clean Air (1970), Water Pollution Control (1972), Endangered Species (1973), and Safe Drinking Water (1974) became law.
Today’s students rightly ask, “Why do we need Earth Day nearly 50 years later?” Why are all the residents of Flint, Michigan are drinking bottled water to avoid lead poisoning? Why is Dallas flooded and Sudan in drought year after year? A team of scientists recently confirmed, for the umpteenth time, that 97% of the world’s climate scientists concur on human action as the cause of serious climate change. Nonetheless, a vocal minority seeks the repeal of already-effective legislation and blocks progress on actions and international accords that offer hope of avoiding environmental collapse. Why is their message so powerful?
Social scientists point to two patterns of thought and behavior. First, humans make bad choices when the benefits or costs occur at vastly different times. We choose a fast-food meal today over a banquet next year, and put off difficult actions or small repairs until a larger problem demands our attention. Second, even small doubts undermine our willingness to act. We become reluctant to make major changes in our comfortable consumer-oriented lifestyle or put economic stability at risk if, the minority claims, the scientists might not have the story about climate change exactly right. (Read Merchants of Doubt to learn how corporations have manipulated this cognitive foible to increase profits and put off needed change.)
Pope Francis offered us a different perspective in the subtitle to his environmental encyclical last year. He spoke of “Care for Our Common Home,” calling on me to experience the needs of the residents of Flint, Dallas, and Sudan just like those of my neighbors and family. This is a deep experience of community, one we build in prayer and in solidarity with the needs of all.
Earth Day 2016 asks us to care not only for the needs of today’s victims of flood, famine, and disaster, but to do all we can to slow or reverse the harm to our planet. In our own lives, we will experience and benefit from this deeper sense of shared humanity. That shared humanity, even more than a safer planet, may be the best legacy we can give the next generation.
[This column ran on in The Cable, the student newspaper of The College of St. Scholastica, in the April 22, 2016 issue – Earth Day #46.]