Something very special is occurring next week; an extraordinary celebration of humanity’s challenges, successes, and commitments to a greater good. A day to consider the word “home” in the broadest definition possible. Fifty years in the making, it’s a global holiday like no other. Here at Kettle Creek Environmental Education Center, it’s our favorite holiday and celebration of the year!
We are talking about Earth Day of course! Earth Day is observed every year on April 22, starting on that fateful day in 1970. What began fifty years ago as a “national teach-in on the environment” inspired by anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s has morphed into a global celebration of environmental education and appreciation.
The 1960s were a turbulent time in modern American history. Americans were becoming increasingly aware of suffering and injustice around the world, of both fellow humans and the planet. Some folks became suspicious of the current narrative of the time that the Earth belonged to humans to plunder carelessly as needed by whoever was rich and powerful enough to do so. Rachel Carson’s prophetic 1962 bestseller Silent Spring raised the curtain on the harmful problems of pesticides, helping to bring environmental concern and conservation to the forefront of Americans’ minds and the national agenda.
At the time, there were few legal consequences for factories that polluted the air and water. Large, gas-guzzling cars were advertised as a status symbol for success and prosperity. Then, in 1969 Americans witnessed Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River literally catch on fire due to all the chemical waste dumped in it. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, the largest US oil spill in history at the time, ravaged the coasts of California. These tragic environmental disasters helped to catalyze the already growing environmental consciousness, channeling the momentum of the anti-war movement to put environmental protection and public health on the front page.
Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, knew it was time to convince the United States government that the planet and public health were at risk. Nelson envisioned a large-scale, grassroots environmental demonstration “to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.” He selected the date – April 22 – because it fell between spring break and final exam week at universities around the country. The Senator’s dream became a reality when on that day, 10% of the American population rallied in the streets, parks, and schools to advocate for a healthy environment and a sustainable future.
Environmental Education Coordinator Roger Spotts remembers that dramatic day 50 years ago:
“It was April 22, 1970 and I was a fifth grader at Dalmatia Elementary School. We were all very excited because we were having an assembly about something called Earth Day. My Science teacher, Mr. Adams, was organizing the event and for someone who was always a calm person he was definitely excited. As a fifth grader, I did not totally understand what Earth Day was all about. Growing up in a rural community we did not really see the environmental pollution other people were seeing in the more urban areas. The assembly did not last very long and I don’t remember much about it but I do recall that it was about saving the environment and protecting the plants and animals living in it. I was all about making the environment healthy for animals so I was on board to help the cause.
Over the last 50 years of my life I now fully understand why that first Earth Day was so important. I can look back now and realize that even though I did not know it at the time, the local streams near my house had acid mine drainage problems as well as sediment from agriculture, things that were addressed as part of this movement. The awareness and concern for our natural environment created by that day have allowed us to actually have a cleaner planet to live on in 2020, fifty years later. We certainly still have our environmental issues but without that first Earth Day 50 years ago I am not sure where our planet would be today. I am grateful for the interest Mr. Adams showed in this event and the impact it has had on not only me but people all over the world.”
Now, 50 years later, the concept of protecting the environment and regulating our shared natural resources is ingrained in the public consciousness. People all over the world understand that humans suffer when our environment suffers. People thrive when the environment thrives. That’s no coincidence. Mankind is not separate or above nature, we are a part of it and we play an essential role in caring for it. All of our actions on this planet have consequences, even if those consequences occur in the long term. Future generations will pay the costs and bear the burdens of our short-term gains and conveniences. There is sound science to back up these widely accepted insights and observations.
A history of conservation is something Monroe County in particular can take pride in. Over the last 50 years, the county has enacted policies and programs that ensure the protection of our natural resources and quality of life for residents. Because of strong leadership and the will of the people (agreeing to tax ourselves), we can all enjoy the lush green valleys, dark rich forests, dramatic rocky ridges, exceptional value streams, and flourishing wildlife within the Pocono region.
This was no easy feat to protect and expand public lands all while the county was undergoing rapid changes in population and demographics. It’s a real achievement that we’ve managed to maintain and even enhance our quality of life while still allowing for development of businesses and communities throughout Monroe County.
In fact, parts of eastern Monroe County along the Delaware River could very well have been underwater right now. The federal Tocks Island dam project would have flooded the Delaware Valley from just above the Delaware Water Gap to Port Jervis, NY. A total of 72,000 acres were acquired or condemned under eminent domain for the project.
However, local citizens, under the wise leadership of two local women, protested and fought back. Nancy Shukaitis and Ruth Jones formed a group called the Delaware Valley Conservation Association. They attended government hearings and meetings about the project and became the faces of the county’s growing conservation movement. Eventually, scientific analysis proved how this project would not be feasible or beneficial in the long term. Years later, those lands were transferred to the National Park Service to establish the scenic and popular Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
Grassroots conservation organizations, intergovernmental cooperation, and the vote of the people is why the Pocono Mountains still touts some of the healthiest habitats and finest freshwater ecosystems in the nation. Monroe County’s open space properties have protected unique natural features and miles of clean streams to provide opportunities for outdoor recreation and enjoyment. Monroe County Conservation District has helped local municipalities implement land-use planning efforts that take into account modern conservation design principles and stormwater management. We have accomplished all of this because we now understand how our individual and collective well-being depends on the well-being of the natural world that sustains us.
We have come a long way in 50 years since the first Earth Day. Nevertheless, as we evolve, our challenges evolve as well. As we all deal with this unprecedented pandemic, it gives us a chance to reflect on our priorities in life. With our current world and our environment seemingly out of balance, it’s never been more important to connect with each other and with nature while staying healthy.
Perhaps we can reconsider how we treat our planet and all our fellow creatures that dwell here. We can reconsider systems and traditions that exploit wildlife and habitats for greed and pleasure. With greater understanding of our Earth comes greater responsibility to preserve it, which ultimately protects ourselves as well.
By now we all know simple ways we can each have a lighter impact on our planet. Recycling, composting, donating, turning off lights and faucets, installing efficient light bulbs, using less gasoline, taking shorter showers… the list goes on and on. Indeed, while these suggested actions certainly help, they don’t go far enough to address the systemic causes of environmental harm and injustice.
For it’s not just our individual day-to-day actions that we need to consider to improve our Earthly home, it’s the commitment to those actions. We must pursue a lifestyle that is mindful of how our actions affect others; how our consumer decisions and eating habits influence what kind of future we will have, for us and our children. We must reevaluate the way and the rate at which we treat, utilize, and commodify the living things around us and the habitats we all share.
Citizen protest and forward-thinking progress is exactly how Earth Day began and how conservation got on the radar in the first place. We are again at a critical point in human history where we can potentially gain better control over our human destiny. We can insist on a society where the less fortunate and the voiceless mustn’t suffer a larger burden of environmental destruction. We can be a society that appreciates and celebrates diversity, both of people and of wildlife. We can demand that polluting businesses and corporations pay their fair share for the harm they are causing and that they do everything within their power to mitigate it. We can petition for a transition to smarter energy systems and infrastructure to ensure a sustainable future. We can assert the value of human life and quality of life over profits. We can hold our leaders in government accountable for their decisions affecting the rest of us. We can each keep in mind that we all deserve a home that we can feel safe in and be proud of. That one and only collective home for all of us is Earth.
This Earth Day, I hope you can look around and feel eternally grateful for what our home provides for us. We can breathe, we can drink, we can eat, we have shelter, and we are cared for. We can behold the existence of all the natural beauty of our world. I encourage you to go outside and experience it firsthand.
We may still be reeling from this current traumatic event, but we will move on from this. And when we do, we need to move forward in the right direction and challenge the status quo that perpetuates these dire situations across the globe.
Sadly, and understandably, we cannot hold our countywide Earth Day celebration this year. I will miss seeing you all there. The support of our local community for our environmental efforts truly warms my heart like nothing else. We may not be able to hug each other right now, so feel free to go hug a tree instead.
Cheers to you, Earth, and to all of you too. Happy 50th anniversary! We can only wonder where we’ll be in another 50 years!
-Brittney Coleman, Environmental Educator