A reflection on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day

By Anne Rowthorn

Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and conservationist, published Silent Spring in 1962. An excerpt:

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines.

The countryside was famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrating birds were pouring through in spring and fall people traveled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills, and shady pools where trout lay.

Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was the shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families.

There was a strange stillness. The birds — where had they gone? On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.

Carson’s words challenged the American people to look around and begin to appreciate how, silently and slowly, our environment was deteriorating, polluted by the chemicals of “industrial agriculture,” and scarred by destructive mining, often on public lands.

Enter Gaylord Nelson, Wisconsin’s “Conservation Governor.” Nelson was the son of a country doctor, from Clear Lake. As governor from 1958-1962, he cleaned up the state’s polluted waterways and dilapidated parks, purchased lands to open new parks and wilderness areas, created a Youth Conservation Corps.

Like Rachel Carson, he saw the birds disappearing. When Nelson was elected to the US Senate in 1962, he was dismayed to discover that there was no environmental agenda in Washington. Despite Rachel Carson’s warning, Americans were still spewing chemicals into the environment. The average new car cost $3,542, sporting a gas-guzzling V-8 engine, whose tank could be filled at 36 cents a gallon. As new oil wells were being discovered in Oklahoma and Texas, technology for offshore drilling was becoming cheaper and more effective.

In 1967 the Torrey Canyon, an immense oil tanker, went aground off the coast of Cornwall in England. It soaked the coastlines of England, France, and Spain in oil and killed thousands of fish and sea birds. Two years later, an offshore oil well burst off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Nelson had seen enough. The time for reform had come.

Nelson’s Eureka! Moment came on a flight to San Francisco. Why not harness college students’ passion and start a grassroots movement? Wasn’t it time for a national conversation about the condition of the environment?  Why not designate one day in the year for forums, demonstrations, wilderness hikes, and city walks? His idea gained surprising public support — stock brokers and labor unionists, country dwellers and city slickers, teachers and students. Congress passed a bill establishing Earth Day, April 22, as a national day devoted to the environment.

On that first Earth Day in 1970, 20 million Americans participated in environmental workshops, teach-ins and rallies across the nation. In little more than seven months a new movement had begun. By the end of the year the Environmental Protection Agency had been established, the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts had been passed. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Federal Pesticides Act, the National Hiking Trails and the National Scenic Trails Acts were soon to follow.

When we consider our situation today, the accomplishments of Gaylord Nelson seem nothing short of miraculous. But our planet is facing a profound crisis. Climate change is causing rising seas and overflowing rivers; wildfires, droughts, and scorching summer heat. Arctic ice is receding while deserts expand, and we now have a new category of migrant — those who must flee homelands that have become uninhabitable due to adverse climatic conditions. Coral reefs are dying, along with the marine life they support. Weather extremes are becoming commonplace. Earth has entered the epoch of the Sixth Extinction, the Anthropocene, in which human activities are now threatening the wellbeing of Earth.

Yet we have hope! Look at Kenyan environmentalist, Wangari Maathai, who began as the Greenbelt Movement in 1977 with a single idea. Paying women to plant trees, she believed, would lift them out of poverty and reforest the land. All over Africa, and in small villages around the world, 900,000 women have planted 30 million trees. In 2004 Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari Maathai and the tree-planting women give us cause to hope!

Consider Pope Francis, who has given us hope with Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to you”), his second encyclical. This bold theological and pastoral treatise on care for the Earth is for all people. Francis asks, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? What is the purpose of our life in this world?… Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.”

Have you noticed that a quiet revolution is occurring? City people are walking, taking public transportation and riding bicycles. Community gardens, roof-top gardens, community supported agriculture, and farmers’ markets are all flourishing. In the small New England city I call home, there are some 50 community gardens and a high school farm. Next door to our apartment, Chinese grandmothers and grandfathers grow fruits and vegetables just as they do back home in their Chinese villages. More and more, in small ways and large, we are working the soil and the soil is working on us.

Even during this coronavirus pandemic, we have reason for hope. National, state and municipal leaders, church congregations, neighbors and strangers have mobilized quickly to help each other stay safe.

Senator Nelson reminded us, “The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity. … These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world. Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures. … The fate of the living planet is our most important issue.”

Anne Rowthorn, Ph.D., has compiled five collections of ecological writings, including God’s Good Earth: Praise and Prayer for Creation, (Liturgical Press, 2018), which she compiled and edited with her husband, the hymn writer, Bishop Jeffery Rowthorn.