Will Your Earth Day Be Political? Or Personal?
by Ann Dorough
Wouldn’t you know, the day we finished switching out those watt-sucking incandescent bulbs for virtuous compact fluorescents, an environmental blogger scolded that I was wasting my time. Should’ve been writing my Congressman about climate change instead.
So now I feel guilty, not green.
Hard by the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, I got to wondering, why on earth (ahem) must we choose between the personal and the political? Does one fix the environment better than the other?
Yes, the spark that ignited the modern environmental movement -- the first Earth Day on Aprl 22, 1970 -- started as a political act. Gaylord Nelson, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1963 to 1981 as a Democrat from Wisconsin, borrowed “teach-ins” from the antiwar movement, as a way to grab Congress by the lapels.
Looking back at the first Earth Day, Nelson wrote, “It forcibly thrust the issue of environmental quality and resources conservation into the political dialogue of the Nation....It showed the political and opinion leadership of the country that the people cared, that they were ready for political action, that the politicians had better get ready, too. In short, Earth Day launched the Environmental decade with a bang.”
And what a bang: the 1970s brought the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA), the Endangered Species Act, clean air and clean water laws, mining reform, toxic substance controls, and other crucial landmarks of U.S. environmental policy.
But what really got a whopping 20 million Americans out the door on Earth Day 1970 was Nelson’s decision to decentralize the action, to inspire the grassroots to take control. The Washington office not only organized mass rallies; it also served as an information hub, collecting and sharing great local ideas to replicate. Students, concerned citizens, party activists, labor unions, churches, scientists, and environmental action groups discovered in 1970 that their individual projects were pieces of what could become a national movement. Stream clean-ups and letter-writing campaigns had a way of feeding off one another.
By trusting people to decide for themselves what action was most relevant to their own communities, Nelson gave us a model for local environmental action.
Environmental degradation has international, national, and local origins, so both governments and individuals must act to reverse it. The Earth Day Action Network 2010 gives equal emphasis to “Service” and “Advocacy” projects worldwide, as it seeks to tally A Billion Acts of Green worldwide.
And that’s okay, because service and advocacy support each other. The activist who lobbies his Senator for clean water may someday make the connection and install a rain barrel to keep that runoff out of the Chesapeake Bay. The mom who bikes with her reusable bags to the farmer’s market might take her kids to the Mall for The Climate Rally on April 25th. Both of them will likely support candidates this fall who vote to protect and restore the environment.
As for me, developing a habit of making green choices gives me daily reminders to hound my Congressman to pass climate change legislation too. No guilt required.
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