Earth Day falls appropriately in the spring, because it is about cleaning and tidying up and making repairs to our earth home to keep it safe and comfortable and clean. To protect and maintain our home we are asked to do essentially two things: conserve (recycle) and protect our natural resources.
Recycling is not new, you know. The earth is expert at it. Trees, for instance, push off their leaves in the autumn, and the leaves decompose into the nutrients that travel back up through the trees and come out as new leaves in the spring. Humans have been recycling from the beginning of our time on earth, too. The Romans turned broken pottery into floor tiles or ground it up to make cement. In nineteenth century London, they recycled wood ash into building bricks. Our great-grandparents used the pages of Sears and Roebuck catalogs for toilet paper.
Recycling is a good example of human ingenuity. For example, five thousand years ago, Egyptians recycled papyrus documents into wrappings for the dead and then, a few thousand years later, in the Middle Ages, these mummies were pounded into a substance called “mummy” (cute) and sold in pharmacies as medicine. But wait; there’s more.
We Americans are renowned for our enterprise and ingenuity. I guess when the first European immigrants to the new world set foot on a continent that was nearly 4 million square miles of wilderness, they had to become ingenious and enterprising in the first twenty-four hours. But there’s a limit. Rumor has it that in the mid-1800s, American paper manufacturers were importing Egyptian mummies and making wrapping paper out of their ancient papyrus binding. “Happy birthday, baby dearest. No, no. Mustn’t eat the paper.”
All of which goes to show three things:
- We have been recycling for a long time.
- We have had to keep a close eye on manufacturers for a long time.
- We really do need a Food and Drug Administration.
Recycling, as practiced by our ancestors, was not an “environmentalist” effort. We were then, as we are now, using every substance available to us to manufacture the products we need to survive and to make our lives more comfortable. Today, however, there are a lot more of us, you see, and over the millennia we have been so ingenuously engineering our world to meet our needs and desires that now we can’t grow or mine or pump or process fast enough to keep up with the demands of a world that is filling up with people and stuff and with the waste products of people and stuff faster than a kid can overflow a cereal bowl with Fruit Loops.
Our great-grandmothers recycled worn out clothing into rugs because they couldn’t afford to buy new rugs; we recycle used paper into new paper because we are cutting down trees faster than we can grow them.
The emissions from paper mills, incidentally, are lethal, and that is why Earth Day is about much more than the depletion of earth’s natural resources; it is also about the danger we are in of painting ourselves into the proverbial corner with toxic wastes.
The Air We Breathe
Humans have always been polluters and efforts to protect our environment from dangerous pollutants have been made for centuries. As far back as the 1200s, King Edward 1 of England had his nightie in a knot over air pollution in London. He told Londoners that if they didn’t stop burning that @#&^% sea coal, heads were going to roll. They ignored him. So much for the Divine Right of Kings.
Six hundred years later, in 1952, the smog and soot from coal burning in homes and manufacturing plants turned London into a gas chamber; 4000 people died in London in a matter of days from toxic air. Four years earlier, in the U.S., smog produced by industrial air pollution asphyxiated 20 people in Pennsylvania and made 7000 seriously ill.
Coal-burning plants also produce acid rain, which kills living matter and erodes the world’s irreplaceable works of art and architecture with an effect similar to dribbling sea water on a sand castle. Nevertheless, the use of coal to fuel industry and to produce electricity continues, with the same results.
The air we breathe is poisoned also with the gases and toxic chemicals produced by the burning of fossil fuels to power industry and to run our land, sea and air vehicles. This is a relatively new pollutant which we introduced to the earth environment just over a century ago to power horseless carriages and later our flying machines. Smart little devils, ain’t we? We have been somewhat aggravated to learn now, however, that over the past century or so of burning fossil fuels, we have pumped more carbon dioxide into the air than has been emitted from the exhalations of all life on the planet from the beginning of life on earth.
The Water We Drink
Humans have dumped human and industrial waste, garbage and even corpses in our rivers and streams and oceans and holes in the ground from the beginning of our time on earth because we really didn’t have anywhere else to put it. Now add to that the chemical wastes spewing from our factories and power plants and from our oil tankers and pipelines and we have rivers bursting into flames (Cuyahoga River, Ohio, 1969) and, forty years after the Clean Air Act, according to a 2007 CNN report, “up to 500 million tons of heavy metals, solvents and toxic sludge slip into the global water supply every year.” In these waters we play. We eat fish drawn from these waters. Our ground water is contaminated with pesticides, fertilizers, livestock waste, construction and mining waste and with sewage leaking from septic tanks. Like slimy snail trails, our roads are slick with oil and rain washes these oils and other automotive chemicals into our ground water. This sludge percolates in the ground in which we grow our crops and from which we draw our drinking water.
The Earth We Love
On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, 20 million people joined hands (figuratively speaking, of course) across the United States to embrace a continent whose grandeur and life-giving resources had been dangerously eroded. They were people of every race, culture, national origin, religion, political persuasion, educational and economic background. Their commonality was that they were all earthlings who understood the uncomplicated fact that the planet we are standing on is all we have. We have nowhere else, at present, to go. The earth gives us air, water and food. If we poison and deplete the sources of our life on earth, the earth dies and we die with it.
The founder of Earth Day was Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who stated that its purpose “…was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.”
Three months later, by special executive order of President Richard Nixon, the Environmental Protection Agency was established. Over the next decade, such environmental legislation as the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act were passed.
Since the ‘70s, the numbers of people participating in Earth Day celebrations have grown. By the year 2000, the number was in the hundreds of millions of people around the world and today it involves more than one billion people worldwide.
Earth Day is about getting a grip on a little planet that we have grown quite foolishly fond of. It’s so pretty, you know. Earth is a miracle, really. In the blackness of space, it glows in infinite varieties of color. It is fragrant with flowers and studded with jewels. Out of the soil come watermelons and potatoes and life-giving greens, come vines with grapes and trees with sweet oranges and apples. Out of clams float pearls. Earth is a fantasy land, the continents like theme parks for children. Earth is a postcard to the universe upon which we might write, “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.”
And because the earth is precious and fragile, on Earth Day, in Africa, a drum beat sounds. The rhythmic pounding of the drum is taken up by another drum and another. The drum beat travels across the land. It travels in unison with the beating of human hearts across civilizations, continents and centuries. It pulses in the silicon silence of the Ethernet and ultimately this collective human heartbeat sounds in the pealing of a bell in New York City. The Peace Bell rings each year at the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, and it is a gift to the world of a people who have endured and survived the most feared and devastating force on earth. That force was the atom bomb, and those people were the Japanese.