Tomorrow is Earth Day, an annual event created to celebrate the planet’s environment and raise public awareness about pollution. The day, marked on April 22, is observed worldwide with rallies, conferences, outdoor activities and service projects.
Started as a grassroots movement, Earth Day created public support for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and contributed to the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act and several other environmental laws.
A bit of history:
The first Earth Day was in 1970. Then-Senator Gaylord Nelson, after seeing the damage done by a 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, was inspired to organize a national “teach-in” that focused on educating the public about the environment.
Nelson recruited Denis Hayes, a politically active recent graduate of Stanford University, as national coordinator, and persuaded U.S. Representative Pete McCloskey of California to be co-chairman. With a staff of 85, they were able to rally 20 million people across the United States on April 20, 1970. Universities held protests, and people gathered in public areas to talk about the environment and find ways to defend the planet.
“Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values,” according to a History of Earth Day.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom for being the founder of Earth Day. This is the highest honor given to civilians in the United States.
Earth Day continued to grow over the years. In 1990, it went global, and 200 million people in 141 countries participated in the event. Which brings us to tomorrow, when more than 1 billion people are expected to participate in Earth Day 2017.
This year, in light of the recent cutbacks in the EPA, legislation and ‘executive orders’ signed by Donald Trump to reverse protections to our environment, the scientific community is planning marches all around the nation on Earth Day. The Science March in Washington, D.C., is expected to draw tens of thousands of people to the Mall, and satellite marches have been planned in more than 400 cities on six continents.
Rush Holt, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), says that this is not simply a reaction to President Trump’s election, but that scientists have been worried for years that “evidence has been crowded out by ideology and opinion in public debate and policymaking.”
Although a number of scientists, including Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society, will be speaking at the Washington event, no politicians have been invited to speak. Caroline Weinberg, a public health researcher and co-organizer of the march, explains, “Science is nonpartisan. That’s the reason that we respect it, because it aims to reduce bias. That’s why we have the scientific method. We felt very strongly that having politicians involved would skew that in some way.”
Although Trump’s recent policies may not be the sole reason for the Science March, there can be no doubt that they are a factor. During his campaign, Trump stated that, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” Then, once in office, he appointed Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. This is a man who, as Oklahoma attorney general, had sued the agency many times and who, during an interview in March, said he did not believe that human activity is a primary driver of the observed climate change — a statement at odds with scientific research. Trump has also stated his belief that there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism – a theory that has long since been disproven by the scientific community.
Some might ask just what good a march will do in terms of protecting the environment. The mission statement of the March begins, “There are certain things that we accept as facts … The Earth is becoming warmer due to human action. The diversity of life arose by evolution”. The purpose is public awareness and education. Under the Trump regime, scientists’ voices have been muted, in some cases stifled.
Staff at the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services have been ordered not to send out news releases, create new blog entries or update official website content. They also must seek agreement from senior officials before speaking to the media and in some instances Congress. The National Parks Service was temporarily banned from tweeting.
According to meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus, “It’s broader than about limiting communication. Scientists are seeing this as a full scale attack on truth itself and the principle that government should take scientific information onboard and incorporate it into policies and so act for society as a whole.”
Perhaps Elizabeth Hadly, professor of biology, geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University, said it best:
“If we cannot discuss facts openly – in public, in academia, in business, in government – how can we have meaningful dialogues so essential to serving people’s needs? How can democracy, based on public discussions and trust in our societal truths, survive? And so we will march.”
When a house becomes broken down and unsafe, we can move to another house. But when our planet becomes broken and unsafe, we have no other planet to move to. When we can no longer breathe the air, drink the water, or grow food on the land, we perish.
Happy Earth Day!