Cindy Davidson, Ministerial Intern
Sunday marks the 48th observance of “Earth Day,” an international day of events focused on protecting our environment. Many of those events will celebrate aspects of our natural world, many will encourage us to get outdoors or to get or become even more involved in various aspects of environmentalism, conservation or environmental justice. Some, like our upcoming joint service here at CUUC, will ask us to reflect on our place in the interdependent web of which we are a part and ponder what is ours to do not just each Earth Day but each and every day.
Looking to the past, credit and our thanks for designating April 22 “Earth Day” go to the late environmentalist and politician Gaylord Nelson, who served Wisconsin from 1948-1981 in the state senate, as state governor, and as US senator. Long concerned about the effects of pollution on our air, lands and waterways, he was inspired to bring environmental protections onto the national political agenda in much the same consciousness-raising ways of the 1960’s student anti-war movement. He spearheaded a collaborative effort with others to sponsor a “national teach-in on the environment” for April 22, 1970.
Twenty million (20,000,000!) Americans coast-to-coast showed up in the streets, parks, and auditoriums, and on college and university campuses that day to protest the degradation of the environment and advocate for a healthy, sustainable environment. By the end of 1970, the US Environmental Protection Agency had been founded and acts protecting clean air, clean water and endangered species had been passed. Gaylord’s efforts were successful in part because he cultivated a focus on common concerns and worked in ways that encouraged people to transcend their political, economic, geographic, and lifestyle divides and work together to preserve and protect a clean environment for the future.
A few generations later, we stand on the cusp of even more urgent environmental concerns as global warming looms not solely in the future but has begun to impact us in the present while threatening to play out more rapidly than previously predicted by many scientists. We are inundated in our daily lives with news and reports about one ecological concern or another – oil pipeline spills in our gulfs, rivers and suburban neighborhoods and on tribal lands; loss of biodiversity and habitats; ocean acidification, sea level rise, severe weather events, drought and failing crops – and despair can easily become our daily companion. It is especially good to be reminded of the roots of Earth Day, then, as we see environmental protections being rolled back and the urgent need to move boldly on climate change solutions disputed and disregarded under our current administration.
Perhaps we can take comfort and encouragement in the paths that have been trod before us to walk together into a brighter future. Perhaps we are the ones to offer to the next generation new stories of transcending divides, laboring through the difficult steps of finding common grounds despite our differences and appreciating the best of our diverse perspectives and gifts. Over the years, in my experiences with “greenies” and religious environmentalists of many faiths, I have been often reminded that we need not think or theologically believe alike to love our Earth alike, nor to act alike. In our commitment to a common good of a livable future for ourselves and generations to come, we can find and grow our strength and hope. Certainly, there is plenty of room for disagreement and stalling as experts and citizens debate strategies and tactics, yet we must not become complacent or succumb to analysis paralysis. Again and again, these words of Thich Nhat Hanh come to mind for me:
A student asked me, “There are so many urgent problems, what should I do?” I said, “Take one thing and do it very deeply and carefully, and you will be doing everything at the same time.”
(From “Caring for the Environmentalist” in
The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology)*
* To learn more about Nelson and the history of Earth Day, check out the “Nelson/Earth Day” website of the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: http://www.nelsonearthday.net/nelson/. (Click on “The Nelson Collection” to take a trip down memory lane courtesy of the archives.)