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Expired · 27th April 2010
Ray Grigg
The first Earth Day occurred 40 years ago on April 22, 1970. It grew from the idea of an American Democratic senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, as he flew from Santa Barbara, California, where he had just witnessed the disastrous consequences of a blow-out at a off-shore drilling rig that was polluting the state's beautiful coast with about 12 million litres of dark, sticky crude.

Nelson, a quiet and somewhat secretive environmentalist, decided to employ a Harvard activist, Denis Hayes, to organize a peaceful, educational "teach-in" to protest and prevent similar environmental disasters. Hayes's efforts, ignited by the idealistic spirit of the anti-Vietnam era in the United States, exploded into Earth Day, a symbolic honouring of the planet. The 20 million Americans who celebrated that first event were joined by millions of others around the planet. Earth Day now involves a billion people from almost every nation in the world.

So, what has been accomplished in 40 years of Earth Days?

Maybe the best summary comes from Denis Hayes himself. "Earth Day has succeeded in being the ultimate big tent," he told Richard Charter of the San Francisco Bay Guardian (Apr. 13/10). "To some rather great extent, it's had some measure of success." But the problem is that "environmentalists tend to be broadly progressive people who care about war and the economy and health care. They aren't single issue voters. And somehow, the political intensity is missing."

This lack of "political intensity" marginalizes environmental issues, keeping them peripheral rather than primary. Clear environmental standards and objectives get diluted in the political arena by other concerns. As a result, politicians at all levels of government, take weak and equivocal positions that lead to few significant results. Consciousness has certainly been raised. Gestures have been made. But, despite the environmental distance we have come, relatively few hard and solid laws are enacted. Most people, whether they be ordinary citizens, leaders of government or heads of corporations, do not act as if they comprehend the enormity of the environmental challenges we face or imagine the severity of the consequences if we don't move quickly and dramatically toward giving priority to the health of our planet's biosphere.

The results can be noted from global to local. The Copenhagen talks failed to reach an internationally binding protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. Canada's current environmental record is a disgrace of quasi-denials, obfuscation, subversion, evasion and obstinacy ‹ environmental regulations are usually being overlooked or dismantled rather than being implemented. The provinces are doing better. And some cities and municipalities are trying hard. Earth Day's objectives are often supported throughout the year by multitudes of small projects in local communities across Canada. But these efforts are either handicapped or undermined by too few supportive provincial and national laws. The vision, clarity and resolution that give shape and momentum to a country-wide effort is sorely lacking because most political leaders still do not understand the shift in consciousness represented by the Earth Day event.

Earth Day marks a transition from a culture that gives priority to the freedoms of individuals and corporations to a culture that gives priority to the planet's biosphere and its sustaining ecosystems. As the global and instantaneous attributes of the electronic media expand human awareness, the resulting overview is causing us to think and understand with perspectives previously unknown. This, of course, generates conflict between those subscribing to the old values and those with the new expanded view. Those with the narrower focus of self-importance have difficulty adapting to the more collective dawning that we are all confined to one small planet and we must yield to the imperatives of resources, capabilities and limits that it imposes. Earth Day is about bending our imaginations toward this more comprehensive understanding of who we are and what we must do if we are to continue living in this Eden on the edge of the Milky Way.

An interesting adjunct to an expanded Earth Day is Earth Week and Earth Month. Is an Earth Year on the horizon? In the other direction is Earth Hour ‹ an hour is a shorter unit of concentration so it's easier to sustain. Then why not an Earth Minute? Or an Earth Second? In the progression of our growing mindfulness about the health of our planet, if we moved to a succession of moments of appreciative awareness, we might be able to curtail those impulses that abuse the biosphere and render our own comfortable survival here increasingly precarious. Although an Earth Second might seem like a mind-game, it's deadly serious; we must eventually reach a continuous harmonious relationship with the Earth sustaining us or we will be evicted by those same forces marking its past past epochs of life. Nature is not gentle when it has been trespassed and aroused. We live in a narrow spectrum of compatibility with our surroundings; we violate the terms of our occupancy at grave jeopardy.

This is ultimately the message of Earth Day. Honouring and rejoicing in the beauty and plentitude of our planet also comes with the dimensions of awe, humility, respect and fear – all positive attributes in our growth as humans if we can be large enough to embrace them as necessary insights rather than resist them as limiting impositions.

As for Earth Day ten years from now? "I would like to see Earth Day 50 be a celebration," said Denis Hayes (Ibid.). The "political intensity" so conspicuously absent in our present environmental consciousness could become the unquestioned foundation guiding our thoughts and strategies on this best of all possible planets. Then Earth Day would, indeed, be a true celebration of life and diversity, of wisdom and caring, of intelligence and foresight – when we finally reach a sustaining and harmonious equilibrium with the only place in the universe we can call home.