In 1969, two ecological disasters changed America. The Santa Barbara oil spill was the largest such spill in the United States at the time. Almost 100,000 barrels of crude oil polluted the Santa Barbara channel, killed thousands of birds and sea mammals, and uncounted numbers of fish and other marine life. The oil released from an offshore drilling platform polluted almost 200 miles of shoreline from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. The Cuyahoga River was so heavily polluted that sparks from a train crossing a bridge over it caused the oily flotsam in the river to catch fire. These two events brought public attention to, and outrage over the sad state of environmental degradation and resulted in a number of important pieces of legislation, among which are the formation of the EPA, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and the Endangered Species Act.
Those environmental disasters were among the events that moved Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson to organize a teach-in scheduled for April 22, 1970. Event organizers changed the event’s focus from classrooms to reach a broader audience and renamed it “Earth Day.” More than 20 million Americans across the nation participated in activities to demonstrate against decades of environmental degradation and the risks they expose people to. Since then, Earth Day has become an important worldwide event. Its anniversary has been marked by significant policy announcements: in 2016, 174 countries and the European Union signed the Paris Climate Agreement.
This year, its 51st anniversary, more than one billion people in more than 190 countries will participate in events signifying this year’s theme, “Restore Our Earth.” Among this year’s ambitious goals are increasing tree plantings, adapt regenerative farming technique, increase climate literacy, and the “Great Global Cleanup” to reduce pollution and encourage people to take individual action to reduce waste.
Dr. Mona Becker, who taught environmental science at McDaniel College, took time from her busy schedule to answer a few questions about Earth Day.
What is the importance of Earth Day? Earth Day raises awareness to issues that fall to the back of public awareness. It serves as a focal point for those things that we sometimes don’t pay attention to. I think of it as more like a yearly checkup, which is also really important. I think there’s too much focus on the one day. Those issues, like pollution, global warming, and environmental degradation need to be attended to throughout the year. We should be taking steps to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, like building infrastructure for electric vehicles.
What steps are we presently taking? Locally, we’ve made some strides in going solar, and there’s more to do there. For instance, we can make it easier for local business to go solar by addressing zoning issues relating to solar panels. Westminster has been designated “Bee City, USA.” Pollinators provide vital ecosystem services. They contribute to food security. Becker noted that Westminster will plant a pollinator garden on May 1 at King Park.
What other steps should we be taking? There are plenty of things we can do as individuals. For instance, we can save significant amounts of energy and money just by eating the food we buy. Food production accounts for about 10% of US energy consumption, and more than a third of the food we buy winds up in landfills. Buying locally grown food helps our local agricultural businesses. Plan your trips to cut down on driving. Driving less saves energy and money, and it reduces pollution. Plant a tree if you can. If you own your home, consider going solar. If you can, plant wildflowers and indigenous plants to attract pollinators. While liquid soap dispensers are convenient, the bottles are terrible for the environment in many ways. Bar soap is packaged in recyclable paper, meaning less plastic in landfills and less microplastic in the earth, the air, the oceans and our food. Quite literally, there are hundreds of ways we can reduce pollution, increase recycling, and save energy.
If anything at all should be completely apolitical, protecting our environment is it. The planet has been compared to a lifeboat with every person in it. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and everyone else on “lifeboat Earth” to keep it from sinking in a sea of garbage and pollution.
Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at email@example.com