What is the true meaning of Earth Day?

 

In June 1989, five months after running aground and spilling its cargo all over Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the Exxon Valdez limped home to San Diego, still leaking a trail of oil.

I went down to see it at the shipyard, but the public wasn’t allowed in close and there wasn’t much to see. The costs of the American car culture are often hidden from view.

I’m reminded of this as Earth Day approaches, on the heels of Easter. The two celebrations of spring occur within a week of each other this year, thanks to the configuration of the Earth and Moon.

Though only 47 years old, Earth Day is now observed in more than 180 countries. Which makes sense when you think about it. Humanity has many religions, but, so far, only one planet.

The first Earth Day was a response to a massive oil spill near Santa Barbara, twenty years before the Exxon Valdez disaster. It was the brainchild of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat and early opponent of the Vietnam War. Nelson toured the California coastline in the aftermath of the spill and thought that the energy of the anti-war protests could be brought to bear on environmental issues.

From Nelson’s 2005 obituary in the New York Times:

More than 20 million Americans marked the first Earth Day in ways as varied as the dragging of tires and old appliances out of the Bronx River in White Plains and campus demonstrations in Oregon. Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York closed Fifth Avenue to vehicles. Congress shut its doors so lawmakers could participate in local events. Legislatures from 42 states passed Earth Day resolutions to commemorate the date.

Senator Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 by President Bill Clinton, who praised him as “the father of Earth Day.”

The Santa Barbara disaster occurred in the heart of America’s car culture, within view of the Pacific Highway. More than 3 million gallons of crude oil fouled some of the most popular beaches in the world, and killed untold thousands of birds, fish and sea mammals.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The Jan. 28, 1969, blowout was caused by inadequate safety precautions taken by Unocal, which was known then as Union Oil. The company received a waiver from the U.S. Geological Survey that allowed it to build a protective casing around the drilling hole that was 61 feet short of the federal minimum requirements at the time.

The resulting explosion was so powerful it cracked the sea floor in five places, and crude oil spewed out of the rupture at a rate of 1,000 gallons an hour for a month before it could be slowed.

It was the worst oil spill in the nation’s history – until 20 years later, when the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude off the coast of Alaska.

In those twenty years, California and the United States, with bipartisan support, passed reams of environmental legislation. There is little doubt that these laws have improved all of our lives. Los Angeles still has smog, but not like it did in 1969, thanks to the requirement that all vehicles pass an emissions test before they can be registered. We still have bad oil spills, like the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, but we also have an enhanced awareness of our impact on the planetary ecosystem.

In the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill, Greenpeace ran an ad campaign with the slogan: “It wasn’t the tanker captain’s driving that caused the Alaska oil spill. It was yours.”

Even the car-happy cities of southern California are starting to take this to heart, and invest in public transportation. If we are serious about the environment – and the expanding observance of Earth Day shows that we are – there is no mission more important than promoting alternatives to the private car.

And that’s why I’ll be down in Bangor’s Pickering Square from noon to 2 pm on Saturday, April 22, Earth Day, to help celebrate the Community Connector bus system. There will be free food, activities for all ages, information and entertainment. The event is hosted by Transportation for All, a volunteer group working to improve bus service in the greater Bangor area.

Every bus passenger represents a car not driven, a tank of gas not purchased, a reduction in the risk of another oil spill. Bangor’s bus system dates back to 1972, just two years after the first Earth Day. Both traditions are worth honoring.

 

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