Wednesday, April 23, 2008

EARTH DAY 2008

(written on April 22, 2008)
Thirty-eight years ago today, Sherry and I were the co-chairpersons of the committee for the first Earth Day at University of California, Irvine. At this moment, we're at about 30,000 feet above the planet, flying (in an airplane, of course) to Los Angeles for a visit with friends and family in L.A., Orange County, and San Diego. This will be a trip of memories as we visit people and places some of which we haven't seen in 30 years.

My memories of the first Earth Day are faded, but some images and conversations remain. I remember the feelings of excitement and importance we felt as we brainstormed what to do, what topics to highlight, what speakers to invite. Some of the topics I remember were trash and recycling, autos and mass transit, development and sprawl, and air pollution and human health. We built a huge human figure out of trash, and had a press conference at the County dump. It was a great event.

But I also remember some of the contradictions very clearly. I was a graduate student in ecology, and had a difficult time getting even a few of the ecology faculty interested in Earth Day. The Dean finally agreed to partially fund the event if an artist friend of his would be allowed to sell cast metal "earth symbol" pendents he had designed. The V.P. of the Irvine Ranch Company, just beginning their huge urban development projects, when asked why they were designing new communities around the automobile instead of mass transit, said that they would only build in mass transit if people wanted it, and people didn't want it. And the staff person at the American Lung Association, following a meeting where we put together our program elements about automobiles, air pollutants, and public health, confided to me that this all sounded great, but he would never stop driving his car because it defined his image. I remember that by the end of Earth Day I was feeling quite disheartened.

So here we are on Earth Day almost 4 decades later, and I'm wondering if much has changed. Certainly there have been changes in both laws and attitudes. But, as I've written here previously, most new American cars get the same or worse gas mileage than the car we were driving in 1970. Global warming is finally a recognized issue - even George Bush has a hard time denying it now - but our government is having to be dragged along, almost reluctantly, instead of leading. Urban sprawl continues unabated in most of our cities, big box stores are more plentiful, and so on.

The most progress towards a sustainable world, in regards to humans, is seen on three main fronts: individuals, local governments, and an increasing number of businesses, including major corporations. These are good signs, and hopefully this is a groundswell that will change society.

So Happy Birthday Earth Day - 38 years young.

(postscript: As we flew into L.A., the brown layer of smog enveloped the plane and obscured our vision of the landscape. My wife's asthma kicked in immediately. )

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