Don’t Forget Where You Came From: the case for a grassroots surge in celebrating the 50th Earth Day
As a thirty-year-old, I cannot personally speak about the first Earth Day. But I do know that 50 years ago we had no Environmental Protection Agency, no Clean Water Act, and appallingly inadequate proto-versions of the Endangered Species Act and Clean Air Acts. Rivers were burning, DDT was sprayed from airplanes across America, and people were faced with the reality that while we only have one planet, the status quo will not allow us to continue to survive on it for long.
April 22, 1970 was the turning point for environmental awareness. The first Earth Day was a clear indication of public demand for better stewardship, galvanizing the nation and its leaders to take action on the environment. The years that followed mark an era of bipartisan accomplishments for environmental stewardship. New point source pollution standards and regulations were enforced, and mechanisms for reining in non-point source pollution were built, setting up our modern fight for the Chesapeake Bay.
The environmental awakening that gave us Earth Day also marks a turning point for the Bay. Several organizations focused on Chesapeake Bay restoration were started (including the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay), and their increased scrutiny revealed that the Bay was home to the first marine “dead zone” documented in the United States. Dead zones occur where excess nutrient pollution feeds algae blooms, which are decomposed by oxygen-consuming bacteria and other organisms, resulting in very little dissolved oxygen to support aquatic life. It still haunts us every summer, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the shock that spurred action.
The Chesapeake Bay Program was soon started, and after a few decades of hard work by scientists, activists, and restoration professionals, the US Environmental Protection Agency intervened. Using its authority granted in the Clean Water Act, in 2010 EPA set a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the Chesapeake Bay, a “pollution diet” that sets allowable limits of pollutants reaching the Bay. The clock was also set, with a 15 year deadline for all states that drain into the Bay to meet their pollution limits.
With five years left before EPA’s deadline, I see stark parallels between the Chesapeake cleanup effort and global climate change action. On both fronts, brilliant people have been doing their best for decades. On both fronts, a majority of the public is in favor of dramatic action. On both fronts, some nations (or, in the case of the Bay, states) are making much more headway than others. And on both fronts, it hasn’t been enough.
So what can we conservation professionals and concerned citizens do? We are taking restoration action, and reaching out to the general public to inspire them to do the same. We are working hard to achieve top-down political change, and simultaneously bringing resources to landowners so that conservation can happen on the ground.
If you’ve ever attended a volunteer tree planting, you’ve almost certainly felt what I call “tree planting magic.” Volunteers will trickle into the planting site, usually on a cold Saturday morning. They’re often quiet and timid at first. When they get started, the work goes slowly. Many people have never planted a tree before, and it takes a few trees to get the hang of it. Then, gradually, the pace picks up and the number of trees left to be planted looks much more feasible. Some people talk, some people sing, and almost everyone smiles. The air is loud with pounding hammers and laughter. And then, suddenly, far earlier than expected, there are no more trees to plant. The muddy group will, one by one, turn around and marvel at the new forest that they helped plant. Each one of these volunteers leaves the site with a stronger stewardship ethic than when they arrived.
The tens of thousands of residents who volunteer to plant trees each season are energized, empowered, and eager for the next planting. So my question is: what if everyone planted a tree?
An estimated 20 million people participated on 4/22/1970. At the time, the United States population was right around 200 million, meaning around 10% of our nation participated in the first Earth Day. Perhaps it feels like this was a watershed moment because it was. Perhaps residents and politicians responded to a whopping 10% of Americans demonstrating for our planet by joining the effort themselves.
While I may not be able to get 10% of Pennsylvanians to join me in planting trees this spring, it may be possible to get that many to hear about what we’re doing, and to resolve to find a tree planting to join as soon as they can.
In an attempt to tackle this huge task, we’re going big for our celebration of the 50th Earth Day. A regular tree planting, even a huge one, won’t quite do. We need a planting that is so much fun, so novel, so absurd, that people will pay attention, and want to plant trees themselves. What we came up with certainly is absurd: we’re going to plant trees for 24 straight hours. Our “50th Earth Day 24-Hour Tree Planting Relay”, or “Treelay” for short, will consist of 6 volunteer tree plantings running back-to-back, around the clock.
As fun as the Treelay is going to be, it will not be written about in 50 years as the tipping point that led to the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and mitigation of global climate change. If 10% is still the number to reach, we will need 1.8 million residents of the watershed to take action in order to spur the remainder to join. For the United States to take adequate action on climate change, we will need 37.2 million residents. That is a wildly lofty goal, but imagine if that many people joined a tree planting someday.
It is our duty, as the conservation-minded community, to bring our fellow Americans with us. We need to make participation accessible by everyone, everywhere. Not only because the environment belongs to us all, but because we will need the participation of as many people as possible if we are to have hope for the future. And what better time is there to energize your community than the 50th Earth Day?