The Bright Coast

Progressive Thoughts from San Diego Alums on Law, Politics, and Culture

Earth Day: Can It Have Meaning, Again?

Posted by demkid on April 22, 2009

On January 28, 1969, a blowout on a Unocal rig 6 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara spilled 3 million gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean.  Countless seabirds and other marine life died, and thick tar marred 35 miles of coastline in Santa Barbara County.  It took oil workers 11 days just to stop the rupture.  According to the Community Environmental Council, the founder of Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson, took a trip to Santa Barbara right after this spill and was “so outraged by what he saw that he went back to Washington and passed a bill designating April 22 as a national day to celebrate the earth.”  The first Earth Day in 1970 was observed by over 20 million people, and today more than 500 million people and national governments in 175 countries participate, making it (by some accounts) the largest secular holiday in the world.  The catastrophe in Santa Barbara and the modern day environmental movement that it sparked led to the passage of important legislation like NEPA and the Clean Air Act, and resulted in the creation of the U.S. EPA. 

Although tons of people will take part in celebrations today, the tragedy that happened 40 years ago seems lost in the fog of the past.  While the spill galvanized a public and a government to achieve great things in environmental protection, this same level of urgency can hardly be seen these days.  People are now affording the environment a much lower priority, and while this may be understandable in a time of economic decline, this doesn’t make problems like climate change any less serious.  In this week’s New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert explains how “Earth Day has lost its edge and, with that, the sense that a different world is possible.”  While planting trees and hosting fairs are reasonable activities, Kolbert argues that large, self-organized outpourings, like the ones seen on the first Earth Day in 1970, are necessary to spark the environmental agenda yet again.  Simply put, if the public is blasé on serious issues like global warming, politicians will be slow to respond.  Kolbert discusses how the “[Obama] Administration has been strangely passive about trying to shape climate legislation . . . .”  It’s a scary thing if this President is, in fact, shying away from putting environmental protection high on his agenda. 

I sincerely hope that one Earth Day in the not-too-distant future will closely resemble the very first celebration and will demonstrate that the environmental movement should be taken seriously once again.  Unfortunately, unless another tragic event occurs that shocks the public consciousness, I fear that April 22nd will continue to be marked by stories of elementary school children participating in beach cleanups, the First Family planting trees at the White House, and websites “greening” their themes for a day.  Hey, at least we’re doing our part!!


One Response to “Earth Day: Can It Have Meaning, Again?”

  1. […] by demkid on April 22, 2010 A year ago, I briefly wrote about the origins of Earth Day and the current state of the environmental movement.  I talked about how […]

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