Today’s observance of Earth Day is a reminder of the progress humans have made in caring for their planet — and the work that remains.
That work begins close to home. As numerous letters to the editor of The Columbian have pointed out, litter has become increasingly visible throughout Clark County. Discarded masks, coffee cups, food packages and sundry other items mar the landscape, while garbage piles up near homeless encampments.
That makes our community less livable, harms the environment and presents a danger to wildlife and humans. It also violates the spirit of Earth Day, which enjoys its 51st incarnation today — thanks in large part to Clark County.
Denis Hayes, coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970, grew up in Camas and graduated from Clark College before attending Stanford University. Since helping to launch Earth Day — the brainchild of Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson — Hayes has been a leader in the environmental movement. In 1999, Time magazine lauded him as “Hero of the Planet.”
Earth is in need of many heroes these days. Climate change is contributing to severe weather events around the globe; the need to reduce the burning of fossil fuels is evident; and our oceans are in peril. Seemingly every day brings another story of how humans are degrading our planet; in the Northwest that is exemplified by wildfires that have increased in frequency and intensity, and by the plight of our region’s orca population.
Earth Day was created during a time of rising awareness about the environment and the need to care for it. Major cities had experienced deadly fogs created by the burning of coal, the 1962 book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson had highlighted the dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, and in 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. Each was a seminal event in raising public recognition of the fact that humans depend on our planet and, therefore, must care for it.
In 1970, President Nixon signed an Executive Order creating the Environmental Protection Agency, establishing a “coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food.” William Ruckelshaus, who later lived in Washington state for decades, was the agency’s first administrator. Meanwhile, a <a href=”https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2011/11/documerica-images-of-america-in-crisis-in-the-1970s/100190/”>photo documentary project, “Documerica”</a>, captured what the United States looked like before it started regulating pollution.
For many Americans, the defining piece of the 1970s environmental movement was a <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7OHG7tHrNM”>TV commercial called “The Crying Indian,”</a> with the tag line, “People start pollution, people can stop it.” That mantra rings true today, pointing out the individual responsibility that is required.
On Saturday, in honor of Earth Day, Clark Public Utilities is sponsoring several virtual events. It also <a href=”https://www.clarkpublicutilities.com/event/streamteam-earth-day-fest/”>lists a variety of projects</a> that residents can undertake to help preserve and beautify our county, such as planting a tree, doing a home waste audit or starting a compost bin.
Many traditional Earth Day activities have been canceled because of the lingering coronavirus pandemic, but in a way that highlights the true meaning of the observance — Earth Day should be every day. As Hayes told The Columbian this year, it is “something that’s not really trying to change society, but rather, remember something that took place and treat it with honor.”
That can include actions both big and small — such as picking up your trash.