Celebrate Earth Day, but the hard work lies ahead

The OlympianApril 22, 2014 

Olympia Park Ranger Sylvana Niehuser helps Olympia High sophomore Tim Xia, 16, and his mother, Lan Bui, as they prepare a seedling tree for replanting during the Earth Day native vegetation project at Priest Point Park in Olympia on Saturday, April 20, 2013. (TONY OVERMAN/Staff Photographer)

TONY OVERMAN — The Olympian

Millions of people participated in a first-ever annual grassroots demonstration 44 years ago to raise awareness about environmental concerns. They called it Earth Day.

At the time, in 1970, the message focused on saving the whales and cleaning the trash out of our rivers. The public service announcements of the era featured an American Indian saddened to find garbage in a once-pristine river full of fish, and a cute owl that said, “Give a hoot – don’t pollute.”

Then everyone went home and squirted chlorofluorocarbons into their ovens and into their hair that eventually ate holes in our atmosphere’s ozone layer. They smoked cigarettes in cars and airplanes, spreading deadly carcinogenics inhaled by everyone near them, including their children.

The adage reuse-recycle-reduce that every elementary student knows so well today was a foreign concept back in the days when Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, was considered a radical. Nelson’s genius was to capture the youthful anti-Vietnam War energy and shift it to environmental causes.

It wasn’t a difficult task when, in 1969, rivers like the Cuyahoga in Ohio were so full of toxic chemicals that they caught fire. The blaze and a subsequent west coast oil spill were Nelson’s inspirations.

Now that we know the dangers of second-hand smoke and that releasing hydrocarbons had led to changes in the Earth’s climate that threaten our existence, do we still need an Earth Day?

Unfortunately, yes, we do, now more than ever.

Even though we have made great strides toward reducing some of the ways we harm Earth’s life-sustaining ecosystem, the really hard work lies ahead.

Implementing a single-use plastic grocery bag ban in Thurston County and teaching kids the merits of recycling are child’s play compared with bringing down human-generated carbon emissions to a safe level.

No one seriously doubts any longer the harmful effect of our reliance on fossil fuels and the dangerous leakage of methane gas from gas and oil wells. But even though we know what’s killing us, like addicts, we can’t get our deadly dependence under control

There are hopeful signs, of course. We have started to embrace solar and wind as sources of power generation, and it has become cool to drive electric cars, especially Tesla roadsters. Widespread public pressure is mounting for the provider of our electrical power to shut down coal-burning power plants.

Not everyone is pulling in the same direction, however, causing scientists to worry if we’ll make enough headway by mid-century to escape an environmental catastrophe that might someday result in extinction of the human species.

So, yes, we still need a day to both celebrate progress and create awareness of the work that lies ahead. And, besides, the whales are still in danger.

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