It is a day that the card industry has somehow overlooked. But April 22nd is the birthday of Earth Day. Number 51. The day---certainly, its name---may seem more a lark than anything, but its genesis was the result of a pretty serious concern, the survival of the planet.
When the first Earth Day was celebrated, most people paid little attention. Why would they? The robust sixties, the decade we had just emerged from, had been good for America. The ‘greatest generation’ had built the world’s greatest economy. Across the land, belching smokestacks meant jobs. Better living through chemistry was more than a corporate motto, it was the future. Filthy air---smog---meant prosperity and cheap, leaded gasoline was just fine. Finite was a word rarely applied to resources. The party was just getting started. Heavy industry was king.
But two events at the end of the sixties stirred sensibilities. In January 1969, a huge oil spill scarred the coast of Santa Barbara, California. It was an environmental catastrophe. Images of oil-soaked sea birds got people’s attention. Six months later, Cleveland’s chemically-poisoned Cuyahoga River caught fire. People began paying attention. Add to this, Rachel Carson’s best seller, Silent Spring, which debuted earlier in the decade shed a glaring light on the reckless use of pesticides. Suddenly, environment, a heretofore innocuous word, became a movement.
For Native Americans, Earth Day is not just one day’s work. Saving the land is life’s work, said Native American Rights Fund’s Mauda Moran in sharing a quote and cornerstone philosophy of Native Americans. “It is not a means of survival, a setting for our affairs,” said poet Paula Gunn Allen, more than a generation ago. “It is rather a part of our being, dynamic, significant, real. It is our self.”
More attention, said Moran, must be paid to places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Bristol Bay and Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, a cathedral for Natives and one where desecration occurs regularly and recklessly, she said.
Even before ex-President Trump removed 85 percent of Bears Ears from federal protection, a move applauded by scores of Utah officials and locals, the lands were routinely violated by treasure hunters, grave robbers and off-road adventurers. It may be only a matter of time, say Native Americans and other conservationists, before mineral extraction, long-eyed by industry, begins. Meanwhile, the assault on these sacred lands continues across the vastness of this southern Utah expanse. Utah officials have also threatened to sue if President Biden orders the return of Bears Ears to its pre-Trump acreage. Biden has ordered a 60-day review of any expansion.
In southern Colorado, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council has celebrated Earth Day officially for a generation, unofficially for much longer. Today, it is waging battle over a proposed “trans-basin water diversion” project that, said SLVEC Director, Christine Canaly, “will pump 22,000 acre feet of water, per year, out of the San Luis Valley and dump its content into another basin to feed development along the I-25 corridor.”
Director Canaly said the fragility of the Valley, especially its water, is threatened. “Watersheds, roadless areas, wildlife corridors, fishing and hunting,” are for everyone. These things, warned Canaly, are not finite. “Everyday is Earth Day,” in the Valley and unbridled recreation negatively contributes to “fragmentation of healthy ecosystem,” she warned.
Land and water may be the most obvious focus on Earth Day, but birds and the routes they take to be where they are also signal concern, said Audubon Society spokesperson, Jacelyn Downey. The Audubon Society, an organization dedicated to birds and their habitat, pays special attention to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a measure first drafted in 1918 designed to protect against the killing of most bird species without a permit. The act, said Audubon, is under attack in Congress.
Climate change caused by industry has also created a whole new threat to birds. It has impacted natural breeding and feeding grounds, often times chemically fouling or simply eliminating them. These disruptions have also, in some places, altered natural migratory routes, said the Wyoming-based Downey.
“Birds migrate to find food,” she said. It is an instinct almost too old to calculate. “If you are a bird that eats insects,” said Downey, and suddenly a feeding ground has disappeared, existence is threatened. Birds, said Downey, time their departure when food disappears and fly to a place where it will be abundant. But if a feeding ground is upended or has been swallowed by development, the equation is turned upside down. Over time, altered migratory patterns threaten a natural balance and, in some cases, long term impact of birds and the environment. “Without a particular organism present,” said Downey, an “entire ecosystem would basically crash or no longer exists in the same way.” It forces a species to “move, adapt or die.”
Earth Day, while just one day on the calendar, said Boulder Congressman Joe Neguse, should be honored each day of the year. “We join together to reaffirm our collective responsibility to be good stewards of our environment,” he said. The existential threat of climate change, and its impact on the planet, said Neguse, is real.
Today, Earth Day, once an important but obscure American day of environmental acknowledgment, is observed around the world. It is a day when a collective effort to save the planet is underscored. It is also a day when the simple message stated years ago by noted scientist, Carl Sagan, is affirmed.
“Look again at that dot,” Sagan said of the image of a photo taken by the Voyager 1 space probe from a distance of 3.7 billion miles. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.”
The “pale blue dot” is Planet Earth, the only place in a Universe where time and distance are infinite; the only place where life, as we know it, exists. It is home.