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Earth Day, 44 years on

By Ellen Wohl

The 1960s are famous for many reasons: the civil rights movement, the first moon walk, the Cuban missile crisis, rock and roll. The 1960s were also a period when awareness of environmental degradation spread to society at large. Events such as the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s expose of pesticides, the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, and the regular occurrence of smog in many of the world’s large cities helped to convince people that pollution and environmental degradation were pervasive and needed to be addressed.

John McConnell proposed a day to honor Earth at a UNESCO conference in 1969, and the first Earth Day was celebrated on 21 March 1970, the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. This was definitely an idea whose time had come. A month later, another Earth Day was started by US Senator Gaylord Nelson. The second Earth Day took the form of a teach-in first held on 22 April 1970. Earth Day went international in 1990 when US Earth Day coordinator Denis Hayes organized activities in 141 countries. Nearly 200 countries now celebrate Earth Day, and some have expanded the observance to Earth Week. Thinking of this makes me want to paraphrase the standard answer parents give to children when they ask why we have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day but no children’s day: Every day is (or should be) Earth Day.

Earth Day has without question helped to increase visibility of environmental issues and promote governmental and citizen responses to these issues. One indication of this response is the increasing breadth and depth of Environmental Science. Environmental science means different things to different people. Some interpret it as the systematic study of the total environment, a broadly interdisciplinary approach that draws on knowledge from diverse disciplines. Others interpret environmental science as a collection of subdisciplines that explicitly focus on the environmental component within their discipline, typically in an attempt to minimize environmental impacts. Environmental architecture, for example, focuses on green building technology using recycled and sustainable building materials and reduced energy use within buildings. Environmental history examines the development of societies within the context of environmental constraints imposed on human actions and human attitudes toward the environment. The commonality among diverse approaches to environmental science is an explicit recognition that individuals and societies exist within an environmental context defined by the weather, topography, soils, water, and plant and animal communities that interact to create an ecosystem.

Loch Vale. Photo by Ellen Wohl. Used with permission.
Loch Vale. Photo by Ellen Wohl. Used with permission.

Environmental degradation was pervasive and obvious during the early observances of Earth Day. Publication of the now-famous Blue Marble photograph of Earth taken during the 1972 Apollo mission created a stunning reminder of the limited area of the universe habitable by life. More than 40 years on, many of the issues that environmental science addresses today are much less obvious, and may therefore be more difficult to bring to public attention. One of my personal reminders of this is Loch Vale, a stunningly beautiful, high-elevation lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Visitors to the national park have to work to reach Loch Vale. The trail to the lake winds over 5.7 miles and gains more than a thousand feet in elevation. When you arrive, you feel that you have reached someplace special, a pristine mountain lake far from the noise and crowding of the urban areas at the base of the mountains. Yet, research by many scientists over the past two decades indicates that the soil and waters of the lake ecosystem are becoming acidic, largely as the result of atmospheric nitrate deposition. These nitrates originate from the feedlots and agricultural lands, industries, and tailpipes of the millions of people living at the base of the mountains, who are out of sight at Loch Vale, but not out of reach. Without the dedicated, ongoing efforts of environmental scientists such as Jill Baron of the US Geological Survey, who has led much of the research at Loch Vale, we would never be aware of the invisible but continuing acidification of this ecosystem.

For me, the lessons of Loch Vale are threefold. First, there is more to environmental degradation than meets the eye. Some of the most thorough and persistent changes are largely hidden from casual view. Second, the efforts of environmental scientists are critical to documenting environmental changes. We can only act to mitigate environmental degradation if we are aware of it. And third, we need Earth Day more than ever. Whatever form your observance of this day takes, I hope that it includes the recognition that every day is lived on Earth.

Ellen Wohl is Professor of Geology in the Department of Geosciences at Colorado State University. She is Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Environmental Science, Associate Editor of Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, and a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America. She has published several books on rivers and environmental issues, including Virtual Rivers, Disconnected Rivers, A World of Rivers, Island of Grass, Of Rock and Rivers, and Wide Rivers Crossed.

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