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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Remembering the first Earth Day-and its roots in the Northwest

Happy 38th Earth Day! How can that be? The sixteen-year-old who still lives inside me can remember the first one perfectly. In 1970 teenagers at my high school on Vashon Island certainly knew how to have fun, but we also took a lot of things seriously. Mine was the class whose big brothers went to Viet-Nam and didn't all return. Two years earlier we'd been in the middle of a school day when we'd heard the news that Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. And the environment, bad as it is now, was even worse then, with air and water pollution menaces none of us could ignore, although the government still did. . . except for Senator Gaylord Nelson.

Senator Nelson cared. He wanted to make the environment a top priority with the government, as it was with so many of the citizens who felt like they had no voice or power. In 1962 he approached President Kennedy with the idea of a "conservation tour" and Kennedy was all for it. The following year, in September, the President began a trip lasting five days and covering eleven states, talking about the environment and the problems of pollution. It flopped. The smoke of factories still hung above the cities and rivers were poisoned with industrial waste. However. . . a little spark can start a fire, and the kindling of change began to crackle.

Six more years went by. These were the days of anti-wars protests, "sit ins", "teach ins", Hippies, and the "back-to-the-earth" movement. Senator Nelson was in Seattle in for a conference in September of '69 when he thought to himself, "Why not?" Why not have a huge protest over what was happening to the environment? He loudly proclaimed that in April of 1970 there would be a day of nationwide grassroots protest to draw attention to the problems he felt were being ignored. April 22nd was slated for the very first "Earth Day". He built it, and the people came! All across the country, in small towns and big cities, and in high schools like my own, the people rallied. There were 20 million demonstrators. . . 20 million. The people cared. They started to make change happen. I was proud of my generation and what we stood for. But what do we stand for now?

What happened to the kids who gathered at our school assembly on that beautiful spring day thirty-eight years ago? Well, a lot of them still care, but a lot of them became CEOs of companies that are part of the problem today. A lot of them got rich. A lot of them are poor. Ours was the generation that grew up mostly as members of the hard working but happy middle class created by our WWII generation parents, and we have been the ones who have witnessed it's demise. Some of us live in mansions, and are a lot more concerned about having a green lawn than the chemicals that requires . Some of us can't afford health care and are eating fast food and getting fat. Most of us are wasteful and careless in our own ways.

What if we remembered the passion of that first Earth Day? What if you "unplugged" your child or grandchild from their cell phone or electronic devices and took them out into the woods to watch birds and find some wild flowers, had them get their hands dirty planting a tree in your yard, picking up trash, or helping to restore a salmon stream? What if we all did our part, as citizens, consumers, and inhabitants of the planet? What if we reminded those who don't seem to care that they have children and grandchildren who will inherit the mess they've made. We DO have power to change the world. The first Earth Day, with it's 20 million protesters, was only a glimpse of our power. Please remember that day, if you were here then, or honor it if you weren't, so that when we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, it might be in a better world.

Here's a truly interesting and useful website to explore:

Washington State Department of Ecology

I was surprised by how good it was. Senator Nelson would be very pleased.

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