Earth Day: all the stuff we cannot see

We are running out of places to store our oil. Farmers can’t get their pigs slaughtered because the meat plant workers are sick and can’t kill them fast enough. Economies are toppling because of one little virus. Which brings us to the reminder: our life here hangs in a fragile balance.

Earth Day is 50 years old. It was launched by Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and the date was chosen to be just before finals week at colleges. Problems with the oil industry were thought to have inspired him–both the deadly used of lead in gas and an oil spill off the coast of California.

Environmentalism has long been in the fabric of our nation.

Environmentalism embraces  the Pragmatic Utilitarian perspective (hunting, fishing, hiking are worthy pastimes) and Idealist Naturalist (every species is important) perspectives. Most scientists are Idealists.

Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), a utilitarian and the first director of the U.S. Forest Service, saw conservation as being for the good of the greatest number of people and saw businesses as selfish exploiters of resources.  He felt that the government was a representative of the People and should manage our natural resources.  The Utilitarian approach can be found in the Izaak Walton League and the  National Wildlife Federation.

Many events lead up to the formation of Earth Day:

•1930s  The Dust Bowl showed the need for soil conservation.

•1962 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson linked DDT use and bird death. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring connected DDT use with the disappearance of the bald eagle and other birds in the US.  (When I was a girl, most people in the US had never seen an eagle and its mysterious vanishing alarmed patriots as as well as nature lovers.)  Like Galileo and Paracelsus, biologist Carson wrote for a general audience, achieved nearly instant fame, and rattled authority figures.  Yet she had the admiration and backing of other scientists and  some politicians so her environmental movement took hold.

1968 First photo of Earth from space was taken during the Apollo 8 mission. Earthrise shows our planet rising over the moon. The Earth’s beauty contrasted with the dead surface of the moon helped people fall in love with it and see how precious it is and for the photographer, William Anders, human conflict and loyalty to divisive causes looked so petty. “This is the only home we have and yet we’re busy shooting at each other, threatening nuclear war, and wearing suicide vests,” he said. “It amazes me.”

1969 Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted with industrial wastes that it caught fire and burned.

1969 Santa Barbara oil spill causes by inadequate safety regulations, spilled 21,000 gallons of oil off the coast of California, killing thousands of animals. The explosion it caused cracked the sea floor!

By 1970, people in the US had had enough. In 1970 , the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was created. Environmental laws increase from 20-120.

•1970 First Earth Day on April 22 was celebrated.

•A major advancement in environmental science came when the field of analytical chemistry (testing for chemical composition) was developed in the US in the 1960s and 70s.  This new branch of chemistry revealed  that small amounts of synthetic chemicals persisted in the environment.  Before this time, they were undetectable and assumed to be broken down when put into the air and water. I’m an analytical chemist and perhaps my love of environmentalism is at the core of it.

  In 1989 75% of people in US identified themselves as environmentalists. Recently, this has fallen to 42%, in part because it has been wantonly politicized and partly because the problems are less obvious.

•Astroturfing is a big problem for our environmental awareness these days and can be blamed for the lack of support and politicization. Here’s how it works: if scientific evidence points to a consensus but it could harm your profits,  a group of “scientists” will  be formed and they will refute the evidence. They will often not use the scientific method and rarely publish in peer reviewed journals. Sometimes they will get a letter to the editor published in a peer reviewed journal and then they will use it as a citation, as if they had published an article in the journal. Astroturf groups pretend to be “green”. If they employ scientists, the scientists are not working in their area of expertise. There are also social influencers who roam the internet with their name calling ex: saying environmentalists are hippies or earth worshipers, & calling good science “junk science. ” To oppose this, Scientists have had to march and speak out.

Science can be powerful. It’s hopeful yet skeptical–hopeful that problems can be solved but skeptical of the influences of power and money on science. With this, scientists are reacting with alarm to political and financial pressures more than ever before.  Companies are spending money to publicly refute accepted science and regulatory agencies are underfunded.  We even have a president pushing medical cures that don’t work! (Watch the Movie: Thank You for Smoking). These forces aren’t always able to be seen, yet, like a virus, they damage scientific progress and integrity. They damage democracy as well.

Science and Democracy, ideally, are a lot alike. Shared values include –openness to critical scrutiny –a skepticism toward claims that too neatly support reigning values –a willingness to listen to countervailing opinions –a readiness to admit uncertainty and ignorance –a respect for evidence gathered according to the sanctioned best practices of the moment.

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road / the one less traveled by / offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.” Rachel Carson.

These words stand true today, more than ever. Please, celebrate Earth Day today.

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