Defenders View: Earth Day at Middle Age: Time to Recommit

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© Krista Schlyer

© Krista Schlyer

When friends reach 40, we celebrate their arrival at middle-age with black birthday balloons and gag gifts. We joke that the best is behind them and they’re “over the hill.” But those of us who have passed this milestone view it differently, convinced that at 40, one’s best years are still ahead.

On April 22, Earth Day turns 40. Is it and the cause it promotes “over the hill?” Or are their best years still ahead?

The first Earth Day was conceived by the late Senator Gaylord Nelson as a day of learning. In response, schools nationwide organized environmental “teach-ins.” But the activist spirit of the time took hold, and 20 million Americans also gathered to protest deteriorating environmental conditions. Rapidly growing pollution was a huge problem, as symbolized by one of America’s rivers being so filthy it burst into flames. Some protestors wore gasmasks to emphasize their disgust with dirty air. Others stressed concern that fish, animal and plant species were going extinct at a frightening rate.

Since then we’ve made important progress. As a result of the increased understanding and energy generated by our Earth Days, and by the environmental movement they fuel, we now have a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and landmark laws such as the National Environmental Protection, Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. We’ve returned wolves to the northern Rockies and Yellowstone National Park. We’ve kept the grizzly bear from going extinct. We’ve saved the bald eagle and brown pelican from being lost to the lethal pesticide, DDT. And much more.

But as we’ve become more seriously involved with protecting the Earth, we’ve also come to better recognize the enormity of our environmental problems, and the frightening trends of deterioration for which human activity is responsible. So, for example, we see mounting pressure on our imperiled wildlife. In the Southwest, the Mexican wolf is fighting for survival, with its numbers declining 20 percent last year. Also in 2009 the endangered Florida panther faced its most deadly year yet when 17 panthers were killed by vehicles. And the U.S. Department of the Interior wrongly removed protection for northern Rockies wolves (an action we’re suing to reverse), allowing massive wolf killing there. The list of wild creatures in jeopardy grows longer: polar bears, wolverines, right whales, jaguars, black-footed ferrets and so on.

And while we work to protect imperiled creatures from the more traditional threats, they (and we) now face a larger, more complex and more insidious one: global warming. If we do not drastically reduce our heat-trapping pollution emissions, we will nullify most of our environmental successes of the past 40 years—and create new problems that at once dwarf and accentuate existing challenges.

Despite this reality, this Earth Day, like the previous 39, brings hope. Hope, most importantly, that our elected leaders will at last enact global warming legislation that decisively reduces our dependence on dirty fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. President Obama named this one of his highest priorities, and his administration is making significant investments in renewable energy—using the wind and sun to power our cities, offices and homes. Now, if only Congress will act, we could be on the verge of creating a new, clean energy economy that alleviates our most significant environmental problems.

For Earth Day and environmental protection, are the best days still ahead? For our children’s sake, they better be. So this Earth Day, I urge you to re-commit yourselves: Write and tell your members of Congress to pass a real global warming bill. Or join Defenders’ wildlife volunteer corps. Or visit our action center to learn about other possibilities. Help prove that for environmental protection, life begins at 40.

More Articles from Spring 2010

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