What an interesting way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. In the belly of a global pandemic. Many of us are grateful for this time of stillness in the midst of the busyness we have grown accustomed to and the achievement we push ourselves toward. Some of us are learning to do without the things we thought we had to purchase right this minute and the places we thought we had to go right now. We are all seeing the power of concerted effort to create change.
The earth is taking a little breather too and less pollution is pouring into the atmosphere. It must be grateful. (Not all the sweet headline grabbers and memes pass the fact checker tests, however.¹) We will fire up our factories again, jump back into our cars and buses, push the starter on our boats, take to the skies. But for now, the colors of nature are brighter and we are breathing cleaner air. And we have time to enjoy it.
A little Earth Day history: In 1970, the year I graduated from high school, the first Earth Day was wildly popular. 20 million Americans — at the time, 10% of the total population of the United States — took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate against the impacts of 150 years of industrial development, which had left a growing legacy of serious human health impacts. Before that date though, over the previous 15 years, a patchwork of state and federal policies had emerged designed to clean up our environmental act, tied together by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) signed by Richard Nixon in January 1970.² People jumped on the bandwagon that April.
But there’s a cautionary tale about the environmental movement, and it relates to the current pandemic.
Precautionary Principle: The assumption that amidst uncertain information, a new substance or practice is presumed harmful to the environment [or to human health] until its proponents can demonstrate that it is not. The proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.
NEPA codified the precautionary approach that drove the environmentalism of the 1970s in the United States. It is the same kind of statement of values that has incited state and local officials to issue stay-at-home orders in the midst of uncertainty about the spread and severity of COVID-19, and that has convinced most citizens to support those orders. So far.
But, ya know, people get tired of being told what to do. They want a bigger car, a bigger factory, to cut down more trees. They want a haircut, they want to drink at a bar with their buddies, they want to go to church, they want to go to work. Precaution is boring. Waiting for evidence that something won’t harm the environment, or proof that it’s safe to “open the country,” is a threat to Liberty. Right?
“[The precautionary approach] is the power that Earth Day once held, and one that now seems to have been lost. If 50 years of efforts to stem the environmental crisis provides a lesson here, it is that once we begin to negotiate the value of precaution, we can never go back.”³ Take note.
My mother died two years ago the day before Earth Day. She recycled before there was anything to do with the goods, hence a plethora of margarine containers in the cupboards. She drove a successful effort to save part of the trees on the hill above our little town from the chainsaw, ensuring birds and animals and trillium have a place to live; people have a place to walk and breathe; trees would continue to filter the air and improve water quality. She loved this earth. Her ashes are part of the soil at Mt. Rainier, in the Seminary Hill Natural Area, at Kalaloch Beach, and in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Her favorite places.
If she were with us today, she would tell us to walk with the earth as our friend and nature as our teacher. And STAY HOME! Use this time to watch apple blossoms open, trillium return to the earth, peas grow. Listen to a woodpecker peck for grubs, coyotes yip, owls hoot. Send a letter to a friend, to your congressperson, to your newspaper editor (she was masterful at that too). Plant some seeds, take a walk, climb a tree, watch a slug. Play with your children. Watch the sun rise and set. Look at the moon. Breathe.
“Sometimes I need
only to stand
wherever I am
to be blessed.” Mary Oliver