Tag Archives: Earth Day

Earth Has Its Day

Earth Has Its Day   —by Jinny Batterson

Had this been a “normal” year, there would have been big crowds today commemorating the 50th annual Earth Day. There would have been lots of in-person speeches. There would have been live exhibits from corporations and non-profits with a mixture of important initiatives and “greenwashing,” spotlighting small impacts for mainly public relations value. There would have been more exhortations to “reduce, reuse, recycle.” 

This is not a normal year. A small pathogen whose exact origin is still unclear began spreading a respiratory ailment among the global human population in late 2019. As of today, covid-19 had caused nearly 2.5 million known infections and nearly 170,000 deaths. Much of the globe’s human population is on “lockdown.” Public gatherings are few. 

In parts of the world, other variations in nature are wreaking havoc in different ways: a plague of locusts in east Africa is destroying food crops, threatening the food supply of tens of millions; forest fires in Ukraine near the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant have recently caused the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to have the worst air pollution of any place in the world; widespread bush fires during Australia’s 2019-2020 summer have blackened millions of acres and killed roughly a billion animals, endangering such unique species as kangaroos and koalas and putting Australia’s agricultural sector at risk; Greenland and Antarctica have ice sheets that are melting at increasing rates. 

Perhaps earth is reminding us, in increasingly urgent terms, that we are not the masters of the planet, but its guests and its (temporary) stewards. 

For much of my adult life, I’ve accumulated a clipping file of quotations and short pieces of prose that seem meaningful to me. During a personal or societal crisis, I reread them for wisdom. A while ago, I came across the World War II era diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, War Without and Within, edited and first published long after that war was over, in 1980. Anne and her husband, aviator Charles Lindbergh, had spent part of the 1930’s living in Europe to regain some privacy after the highly publicized U.S. kidnapping and murder of their first child.  A pacifist often identified with her isolationist husband, Anne was deeply affected by the 1939 onset of war in Europe and the entry of the U.S. into a globalized conflict in late 1941. A diary entry from Easter Monday during the spring of 1942 expresses both sorrow and hope: 

“Today is the real Easter morning. Yesterday was overcast and chilly. This morning is still, warm, newly awakened. One walks out into it like a flower just opened. …
When I was young, I always felt a morning like this meant a promise of something wonderful … love in someone’s heart far away from me, or the success of some venture of my own. I thought–quite literally–it was a sign from heaven. The person who was ill would get well. … Or maybe something wonderful was happening for the world–some new spirit blooming. … the morning was a ‘sign.’
I still believe it is a ‘sign,’ but not for anything good happening to me or the world, anything specific. The love is not blooming in someone’s heart. The ventures fail. The one who is sick, dies, and the one who is lost is never found. Hate and cruelty and evil are still rampant, war goes on.
And yet it is a sign. It is a sign that in spite of these things beauty still exists and goes on side by side with horror. That there is love and goodness and beauty and spirit in the world–always. This is only one of the times when it is clothed in flesh–in the flesh of a spring morning.”

Amid the global concern about the covid-19 pandemic and the seemingly unending series of recriminations about whose “fault” the pandemic is, there have been occasional notes of clearer air in unexpected places, of a resurgence of birdsong alongside nearly empty highways. 

This morning where I live dawned crisp, cool, bright, with almost jewel-like clarity. May it be a sign. Happy Earth Day!   

The Whole Earth Generation(s)

The Whole Earth Generation(s)   —by Jinny Batterson

April 22, 2016 was observed in many countries as “Earth Day.” This annual event, first celebrated in the United States in 1970, has gone global, drawing attention to environmental challenges and the need to cherish this planet, the only one we know can support human life.

By the late 1960’s, the excesses of unchecked industrialization and conspicuous consumption were starkly evident. Our generation, then coming of age in the U.S., had experienced less global armed conflict or material deprivation than our parents’ cohort. Instead, we’d been shaped by the political assassinations of the era, by proxy wars, by the rise of the civil rights movement, and by a growing awareness of the drawbacks of gender inequality. We had a youthful desire for meaningful change—sooner rather than later. Teach-ins were a popular tool on a variety of issues. A Wisconsin senator, Gaylord Nelson, hatched the idea for a national “teach-in” about the environment after viewing the massive 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Twenty million Americans participated.

A little before the first Earth Day was celebrated, a low-cost, no-advertising catalog appeared: The Whole Earth Catalog. Editions were published about once a quarter during the years 1968-1972, and somewhat less regularly thereafter. Many editions carried on their front cover an image of planet Earth as seen from space. The tone of the early catalogs’ introduction was somewhat defiant: “So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. …(A) realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his(/her) own education, find his(/her) own inspiration, shape his(/her) own environment, and share his(/her) adventure with whoever is interested.” 

The catalog listed its function as “access to tools,” specifically tools that were: 1) useful; 2) relevant to independent education; 3) high quality or low cost; and 4) easily available by mail. 

It may have been through the catalog’s pages that my husband and I were introduced to the work and lives of Helen and Scott Nearing, a professional couple who left city life in Philadelphia during the 1930’s and homesteaded successfully, first in Vermont and later in Maine. The Nearings lived off the land, growing their own food, building their own shelter, writing books and articles about their successes—getting about as far from the “rat race” of corporate culture as one can. Unfortunately, when we tried a similar move in the early 1970’s, we soon learned that we lacked both the homesteading skills exhibited by the Nearings and the stamina to endure the periods of off-land unemployment that are often part of rural life. We retreated to a mid-sized urban area where jobs were more plentiful and the worst excesses of the rat race were less in evidence. We never gave up on the dream of a more sustainable lifestyle. 

Culture and technology have changed a good bit since 1970—the biggest threats to global health and stability can now be more diffuse and harder to tackle than the nation-state wars of preceding generations; civil rights and gender equality have made patchy, uneven, progress; telecommuting has made it more possible to locate in rural settings while still earning a living using mostly urban skills; the Internet has outstripped postal mail as a communications medium. However, some of the basics of human interactions have not changed all that much.

In the Next Whole Earth Catalog, put out in 1981, I found an entry that spoke to me, part of a sidebar called the “Rising Sun Neighborhood Newsletter”:

“If you notice that all the leaders who might make things better get shot you can:
1) Assume their deaths were no coincidence and give up;
2) Spend years proving their deaths were no coincidence and convincing others;
3) Need leaders less.”
When our 2016 crop of putative leaders leaves me unenchanted, I remind myself to need leaders less–some global changes require large-scale interventions, but many more can be carried out at an individual or small group level.

 The “boomer” generation I’m part of is the first to have spent our entire adult lives with images of Earth in all its splendor and fragility as seen from space. The generations coming after ours were born with these images available. I hope they have recognized both their beauty and their vulnerability.  Though we all need leadership at times, I hope that future “whole earth” generations will mature and find their paths realizing that we are all both followers and leaders, and that we need external leaders less.

Earth Day in China

Earth Day in China   —by Jinny Batterson

During the several years when I was in China in late April, I never noticed any hoopla about Earth Day, celebrated in the U.S. around April 22.  This holiday, founded by environmentalists in the United States in 1970, has yet to catch on in China.  A couple of times, I’ve broached the subject of environmental activism to some of my Chinese students and colleagues.  Over the past generation or so in China, there has been increasing interest in ecological education, as the Chinese economy begins to mature and its natural environment becomes more polluted.

I have mainly benefited from industrial progress in the U.S. for much of my lifetime, so I can find it awkward to discuss “earth friendly” development with Chinese friends.  After I’d given a somewhat glib critique of China’s polluted air at an evening Q&A session several years ago, one younger Chinese colleague retorted:

“Your country spewed great plumes and spurts of toxic chemicals into its air and water for over a century before you began efforts to clean up your dirty industries. What right do you have to criticize us when we’re still just getting started on our development?”

Reaching a consensus on steps our respective governments and cultures can take to reduce our harm to global air and water resources can be tricky.  The trade-offs between economic development and wise resource stewardship are not always obvious.  Citizens in both countries register alarm at some of the damage we’re causing, but what we can do to reduce the harm is not always readily apparent.

Progress toward mutual efforts to reduce some pollutants in our two countries, greenhouse gas emissions, got a boost in November, 2014, when Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama signed a historic agreement with ambitious emissions reduction targets for both countries. The U.S. pledged to reduce its emissions by at least 26% below 2005 levels by 2025; China promised to cap its emissions by 2030, and earlier if possible. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, coming from industrial, residential, and vehicular sources, are leading contributors to air pollution, as well as likely facilitators of global climate change. If early progress is made toward achieving these goals, it will help further advance broader international agreements at a global climate summit to be held in Paris in December, 2015. (You can read more about the U.S.-China agreement at http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/china-us-agree-to-limit-greenhouse-gases/2014/11/11/9c768504-69e6-11e4-9fb4-a622dae742a2_story.html.)

A non-governmental boost toward paying attention to China’s environment came recently from a former CCTV (Chinese state television) reporter, Chai JIng, who in 2015 produced an independent hour-plus documentary about air pollution problems in China. Chai’s TED-style documentary, “Under the Dome,” also provides historical context from different parts of the world. It cites Britain’s “killer smog” of 1952 (4 days of heavy air pollution in December that year that killed an estimated 12,000 people). It also chronicles Los Angeles’s smog problems. In the period just after World War II, smog in Los Angeles was just as dense and harmful as Beijing’s smog is today. A photograph taken of one of L.A.’s freeways on Christmas Eve, 1948, shows extremely limited visibility. Strict emissions standards strictly enforced have lessened smog there, even as the number of vehicles on area roads has increased.

Chai has said she produced her documentary out of concern for her young daughter, who was born with a benign tumor that may have been caused by pollution. Chai’s presentation was posted to the Internet and had received over 100 million views in China before it was removed from Chinese websites.

It may be slightly ironic that two high-profile recent public events in Beijing—the 2008 Olympics and the 2014 APEC summit (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), at which Obama and Xi signed their historic agreement—contributed to increasing expectations among Beijingers that cleaner air is possible.  For both events, polluting industries in surrounding areas were temporarily scaled back or shut down entirely.  Motor traffic into the city was severely restricted. Officials wanted to have “blue sky days” while Beijing was in the international spotlight.

When Earth Day comes around this year, I’ll do my part by increasing my efforts to be more sparing in my use of a car.  I’ll invest more in carbon offsets to reduce the impact of my airline travel. I’ll eat lower on the food chain more often.  I’ll revel in the “blue sky days” that still predominate in the part of the United States of America where I live. In addition to personal lifestyle changes, I’ll work harder toward public policy modifications in my town, county, state, and country to help protect the environment. I’ll think of Chai Jing and her daughter, of my own children and grandchildren. Each of us can do something to move toward a more livable planet for future generations of humans.