Earth Day’s “Big 5-Oh” (as AARP would call it) was definitely a major breakthrough in consciousness about the relationship of humans to our home planet. But the rumblings of awareness had been going on for a long time… some might even point to the Roman philosopher Lucretius, whose De Rerum Natura speculated about the origins of life and postulated the existence of atoms. Back in 1903, Teddy Roosevelt met with John Muir at Yosemite and became a champion of “conserving” land as a reserve for “nature.” And in the 1930’s, Teddy’s cousin Franklin Roosevelt established the Soil Conservation Service, noting how mechanized farming was devastating the Midwest, creating dust storms of top soil that occasionally even reached Washington, DC. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring questioned the idea of “better living through chemistry” by pointing out how DDT not only killed mosquitoes, but also destroyed eggshells of our iconic Bald Eagle and countless other birds.
But most people were only dimly aware of such concerns before the first Earth Day in 1970 when the Peninsula Conservation Center (one of Acterra’s precursor organizations) was founded. At that time “nature” was perceived as a simpler place. Concerns about the environment were largely about pollution coming from single “point source” like smokestacks and sewage discharge pipes. We aimed to clean up these “end of the pipe” problems with Federal legislation like the 1970 Clean Air and 1972 Clean Water Acts. These laws required industry to put “scrubbers” on factory smokestacks and water outflow pipes, and provided funding to build multi-level treatment of sewage water before it could be discharged into rivers or the ocean. We thought that would take care of the pollution problem.
After the 1973 passage of the Endangered Species Act, national worries about environmental needs subsided. The newly established Environmental Protection Agency began to do its work, and thousands of baby-boomers filling college ecology classes moved into the jobs created by those 1970’s laws. Palo Alto was first in the nation in 1980 with its curbside recycling program for single-family homes. People began to pay attention to land use planning issues, such as protecting the California coast and wetland areas from development. Prop. 65, passed by California voters in 1986 to protect water quality, required warnings and restricted the use of highly toxic chemicals.
The belief that humans could curb pollution may have reached its height in 1987 when an international treaty — the Montreal Protocol — was signed by 197 nations to protect Earth’s ozone layer by restricting manufacture and use of chlorofluorocarbons. Silicon Valley — which had been using CFC’s to clean its silicon chips — realized that lemon oil would do the same job!
However, by 1989, one ugly headline about pollution followed another. It was increasingly clear that environmental degradation wasn’t just coming from outflow pipes. Aluminum pull tabs from beverage cans littered hiking trails, newsmagazine covers showed hypodermic needles half buried in beach sand, and TV news carried the saga of a New York City garbage barge with no place to unload its foul cargo. Cities like Los Angeles were choking from the smog created by millions of cars. The cartoon strip character Pogo famously expressed it well: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” In short, pollution was everywhere, caused by all of us because of the wasteful and careless ways we lived.
With this in mind, Dennis Hayes (a student leader of the first Earth Day) decided that 1990 was time for a second major event — this time calling it “International Earth Day” — and it was headquartered right here in Palo Alto! A new generation of environmental leaders like Peter Drekmeier and others who would go on locally the next year to form Bay Area Action (another precursor to Acterra), drafted position papers on topics like energy, water quality, air pollution, marine mammals, native plants and animal habitats — all of which underscored the impact of human activities on a broad range of ecosystems.
Still riding below the radar, however, was an issue of even greater magnitude: climate change. In 1988 NASA scientist James Hansen delivered his famous warning about global warming to the US Congress, and in 1989, Bill McKibben’s book, The End of Nature pointed out that with the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, there was now no place on Earth that had not been modified by humans. With buoyed hopes, in 1992 the United Nations convened the first international Conference on Climate Change in Rio de Janiero. Rob Shelton, a business sustainability consultant and the Peninsula Conservation Center’s board president at the time, attended, but he returned, wondering if all the rhetoric he’d heard was truly worth what he called “one Rio” worth of jet fuel to convene all the delegates. His concerns proved well founded when the US Congress failed to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, an largely unsuccessful international effort to limit carbon emissions.
In the US, environmental concerns again fell into the background, overshadowed first by the dot.com bubble and subsequent bust, and then by the 9/11 attacks in 2001. But climate change was not going away — and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 showed that it wasn’t really a “future” problem, either. Fortunately, in 2006, Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” offered a serious wake-up call, and as Stanford professor Jon Krosnick’s public opinion poll showed, by 2007 nearly three-fourths of the American public agreed that the climate was changing. As the country fell into the Great Recession in 2008, however, environmental concerns once again moved off center stage. Reducing public confidence in environmental science was a successful strategy by fossil fuel companies and their allies as documented in the 2014 film, “Masters of Doubt” by Naomi Orestes. While Barack Obama took some positive steps to address climate change, the topic was still ignored by the media — and almost all presidential hopefuls — as recently as 2019.
Today in 2020, while the latest report of the IPCC warns that there is only a ten-year window to avert catastrophic change in Earth’s climate, the Trump administration continues its relentless assault upon long-standing regulatory protections. And now, as the winter turns to spring and Earth Day is turning 50, we find humanity in the grip of a global pandemic, caused by a lowly virus.
With nearly 200,000 deaths so far from the COVID-19 disease worldwide, the reality of human interconnection is entering our consciousness in a deeply emotional way. We recognize that a virus starting from a wild animal in China, traveling to Italy, passing through an airport in New York and zinging all over the globe proves that we are not immune to what happens in any corner of this planet. Sheltering within our homes, we feel the pain of losing connection. We yearn for a hug from our grandchild, to touch a dying sister’s hand, to bring flowers to a friend. We’re now deeply aware of our utter dependence on the supply chain of food that comes from Mother Earth. Satellite photos show cleaner air over China and Italy; Silicon Valley’s frustrating traffic jams have disappeared. We seek solace in nature — even if it’s only nature pictures on line. We realize that Life is precious — and for a few moments, we’re slowing down to appreciate it.
These questions await an answer: What will this virus teach us? What will be the next stage for humans and the ecosystems we are a part of? How will we change and grow before the next decade of Earth Day?