Earth Day 2012: An expression of enduring hope
Earth Day is both a celebration of hope and a chance to get dirt under the fingernails protecting our planet. But how, and why, did it begin? As Americans, we often combine our dreams with a dose of hard work. American ingenuity, ideals, pragmatism and innovation launches great visions; but they sometime create problems, requiring another round of ingenuity to solve.
Earth Day and Wilderness won’t solve all our problems but they are two uniquely American solutions intertwined with each other and with our eternal hope for a better future.
The rise of the automobile
In 1900 there were about 8,000 automobiles in the entire United States, and generally regarded as playthings of the wealthy. We traveled any distance by train. Henry Ford forever changed things by creating the world’s first assembly line and mass producing Model T’s. A status symbol became a common mode of travel and by 1920 there were 8 million cars on the roads.
In the 1920s huge swaths of our countryside were gobbled up under an increasing network of roads and highways. From coastal plains to prairies and once remote mountains, distant regions were connected while the landscape was fragmented. Wildlands shrank in number and size.
A United States Forest Service forester, Aldo Leopold, was appalled and in 1924 convinced the agency to set aside the country’s first primitive area. Wilderness preservation was born, and born of the need to resist encroaching civilization.
Roads and cars continued to expand. By 1929 there were 23 million cars in America. America’s love of cars was forever cemented, as was the increasing number of highways. Enough cars were now on the road that every person in America could ride in one at the same time. Highways became a portal to see the country.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps, putting men to work building a network of highways and tourist facilities which transformed once remote National Parks into tourist attractions.
America’s love of the automobile collided with her love of nature.
Skyline Drive was built along the spine of the Shenandoah National Park; and, instead of following a remote ridge, the Appalachian Trail was now seldom out of sight of the new highway that it crossed two dozen times. The CCC began work on the Blue Ridge Parkway, further paving over the southern Appalachians.
Meeting the challenge of mountain roads
Benton MacKaye, “father” of the Appalachian Trail, was working for the Tennessee Valley Authority in Knoxville designing dams and cities. Harvey Broome was a lawyer and active with the Smokey Mountain Hiking club. Robert Marshall was conducting road surveys for the USFS. On October 19, 1935 these three men got into a car driven by Bernard Frank, another TVA employee.
En route to checking on a CCC work camp, they pulled over to the roadside and drafted a set of principles to protect these mountains. A few weeks later Aldo Leopold and three other people joined them to found The Wilderness Society.
Cars need oil
At the end of World War II our global network of military bases and financial aid secured a steady supply of oil from emerging nation states in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Oil development was so successful that we had a surplus. Ingenious American businessmen created new products: synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and plastic products all transformed society.
From Miracle-Gro to Miracle Whip, we could feed more people using synthetic goods based on oil byproducts. Cheap and disposable, plastic became the building block for everything. Industry redesigned every modern device and package and produced more goods than ever before, all designed to be thrown away so we could buy more.
The Wilderness movement goes mainstream
Howard Zahnhiser, executive director of the Wilderness Society, pursued wilderness legislation, persevering through nine years and 65 drafts. With overwhelming bipartisan support the Wilderness act passed Congress in 1964, with only one member of the House of Representatives voting against it. President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill with these words:
“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
It was and still is a bold vision. At a time of national chaos spurred by foreign wars and the struggle for civil rights we coalesced around an American ideal: protecting our heritage from the unintended consequences of increasing technological miracles.
Wartime economy and the Baby Boom: a “perfect storm”
In the 1960s the military industrial complex and the “Baby Boom” hit full stride at the same time. Our economy was booming – and consuming – more than ever. Plastics made it possible and, from the factories that produced them to the farm fields where they were spread, pollution rapidly increased, degrading our water and air quality.
We threw away more disposable stuff, often not even aiming for the landfill.
U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, and an army of young idealists, stepped up in 1970 to tackle the problem with a new idea: Earth Day. It was filled with speeches and “teach-ins,” but a lot of people also simply went out and picked up garbage.
The impact was immediate. Within a year, Madison Avenue released a TV commercial showing a Native American with tears in his eyes looking at a trashed out landscape. “Middle America” shifted support toward a stronger governmental role in protecting the environment.
Few politicians ever have been more strategic and pragmatic than President Richard Nixon. He signed into law major environmental protections including the Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The 1970s saw a turning tide – one with less garbage in the surf.
In the 1980s government deregulation reigned but the spirit of Earth Day and our bedrock environmental regulations survived. Individually, we actually began to reduce, reuse and recycle. Environmentalism focused often on conservation, including a renewed look at Wilderness.
Congress began to act on some wilderness proposals and every western state, except Idaho and Montana, passed a “state wide” wilderness bill.
In the last two decades we have begun to see the impacts of climate change and to grapple with the problem. Our rapidly expanding population is at the root of many environmental threats; from rising temperatures and oceans to depleted resources and increasing fragmentation of wild lands, we must come to terms with population growth and consumer growth here and abroad.
Hopefully we will meet this challenge through both technological developments as well as cultural shifts. We must learn how to live on this planet, and how to live with each other. As we grapple with long term solutions, we can address immediate needs and opportunities.
There is hope
Setting aside our most special areas as Wilderness is a pragmatic way to assure that we meet some of our needs. Increased demands for resources and recreation suggest that we carefully plan how to manage them in balance with Wilderness to meet all of our needs.
As civilization crowds every corner of the country, we need to set aside some areas as Wilderness: our source for pure water, quiet recreation in all seasons and a place where we can go to hear ourselves think.
In Wilderness we give a gift to future generations, a manifest expression of our best hope and our best planning. It is the practical thing to do for the unborn generations to come. It is America at its – and our – best.
There is no better time than Earth Day to celebrate our hope and to practice our pragmatism, to dream and to reach out and make the planet a better place to live.
How to get involved
Sandpoint’s Earth Day celebrations will include activities over the whole weekend, starting April 20, and culminating in a community gathering on Sun., April 22. Engage with your community, share your story and hear others’ – most importantly, learn how you can carry on this program of hope and change throughout the whole year. Find more information find the “Celebrate Sandpoint Earth Day” page on Facebook.