The images of the Cuyahoga River on fire were a wake-up call to many Americans.
Earth Day is around the corner (it’s April 22) – and to the extent that any of us pay attention to it, it’s a pretty ho-hum thing if acknowledged at all.
The first Earth Day was in 1970 and it’s easy to forget what a big deal it was.
It happened on the heels of the Cuyahoga River catching fire (!) — immortalized in Randy Newman’s wonderful bit of irony “Burn On.”
Another image from the time: the shallows of Lake Erie covered in suds from phosphate-based detergents.
And this: DDT-thinned bald eagle eggshells leading to the near-extinction of our national symbol.
And on and on.
A realization that business as usual might not bode well for the planet was taking hold.
On that day, members of my suburban New Jersey high school sophomore class cleaned out a stream behind the local shopping center. (“Sure kids, go ahead. Can’t do any harm!”)
We made a huge pile of debris next to the main road, flew an American flag over it on a long piece of pipe we found, got in trouble and made the local papers. (“Didn’t think they’d pull a dumb stunt like that!”)
For decades “business as usual” relied on the carrying capacity of Earth’s systems to deal with its consequences — externalizing costs by flushing wastes down the drain, releasing them into the air and dumping them on or in the ground and into the ocean.
The health of our economy has historically been measured by the GDP, which shows only total economic activity with no regard for its source. Many economists now feel this is emblematic of a narrow, short-term view since our society tends to spend money on fixing problems, not addressing root causes.
- Providing health care for people suffering from asthma in areas with polluted air.
- Cleanup of aquifers contaminated with industrial poisons.
- Asbestos abatement.
Why not prevent the asthma in the first place by making sure the air is clean?
Other than fairly basic testing and review, we’ve historically relied on an after-the-fact regulatory system to deal with environmental problems.
This “closing the barn door after the horse has escaped” approach is flawed. Many problems have only come to light after contamination, health issues, species extinction and the like have become too great to ignore.
The concern about climate change is one of the greatest and most urgent examples of this. The precautionary principle is a concept that would help prevent more catastrophes. (See www.commonweal.org/programs/precautionary-principle.html.) Aspects of it have been adopted by the European Union and elsewhere.
Humankind’s scientific understanding of our natural world has increased tremendously, but in our hubris we often overestimate this.
It’s easy to get discouraged in the face of these challenges. Fortunately, the general level of consciousness about things environmental is much greater than on that first Earth Day.
The new administration in Washington is already tackling some of these very tough issues, but what can we personally do?
Here is a tiny handful of examples — there are many more:
- Many national and local environmental groups do great work in many arenas. Support these with donations of time and money.
- Become active by contacting politicians in all layers of government with concerns. Write letters to the editor about these.
- Be more conscious of your personal impact. It’s hard to remember when gigs are slow, but we’re among the most privileged people on the planet — in the top few percent in creature comforts and standard of living. So small things to help reduce our impact seem the proper thing to do. For instance, I live pretty far outside New York City and drive a lot, so I buy a “carbon offset” every month that helps to build wind turbines on Native American reservations. Seems good on several levels. (Google the words “carbon offset” for some leads.)
- Educate yourself about environmental issues. You might find something that interests you and that you might become passionate about.
- Teach your kids about the importance of concern for our earth.
- Buy green power. Consider putting investments in mutual funds that are screened for “green” factors. Most of these also screen for workers’ rights or positive social factors. A win-win.
“Think globally, act locally” may seem as corny to some as Earth Day itself does, but you don’t have to be a card-carrying tree hugger to do what you feel you can — every little bit helps.
The same “all for one and one for all” spirit that’s (ideally) embodied in trade union principles exists in environmental consciousness and activism.
If ever we all needed to look at the big picture, it’s now.
John Arbo is a bassist who has been a member of Local 802 since 1980.