A long look at Earth Day

The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire helped spur a nationwide environmental movement to clean up our land. Once among the most polluted rivers in the United States, the Cuyahoga River is now a Cleveland attraction. Photo: wyliepoon

As I write this, it is April 22, Earth Day. Each year at Fermilab, we celebrate this day with nature programs, tree plantings and, more recently, the Earth Day Fair in Wilson Hall. But what is it we are celebrating?

The original Earth Day, the conception of then Senator Gaylord Nelson, was to be a national “teach-in” — a day for citizens to learn about and advocate for the environment. The environment in 1970 was in serious peril. Municipalities and industry routinely discharged untreated waste into rivers and lakes, and chimneys poured pollution into the air to return as acid rain. Secondly, it was an era of protest: against the war in Vietnam, racism, sexism and society in general, including the deterioration of the environment.

Earth Day 1970 is widely cited as the beginning of the environmental movement. With the passage of epic legislation by Congress during the 1970s to protect air, water, wildlife and responsibly manage hazardous chemicals, the overall condition of the environment began to turn around in dramatic fashion. The air in industrial cities such as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati became breathable, some rare species received legal protection, and the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland no longer caught fire. That’s the good news.

Challenges remain, however. Cleaning up the water and air was relatively easy, what we often call the low-hanging fruit. Since the 1970s, new and less tractable environmental issues have arisen. Many of these 21st-century problems are harder to approach because they are less immediate than dirty air and water. Habitat destruction, especially on other continents, ozone depletion and climate change resulting from increases in greenhouse gases are difficult for the average person to visualize on an average day.

The activism and legislation of the 1970s produced tangible results, but it also ushered in a paradigm shift of sorts. Government, business and urban planners have slowly begun to incorporate environmental factors into their thought processes. “Sustainability” has become an all-encompassing concept that integrates various environmental as well as human welfare issues. For us at Fermilab, the federal push for sustainability forces us to examine our use of resources, generation of greenhouse gases and human health.

Earth Day is, and should be, a celebration. At Fermilab, we have a proud history of environmental awareness, land stewardship and responsible policies. We now have a Sustainability Committee that includes members from all laboratory organizations, and each year we publish our Site Sustainability Plan. But the celebration should also remind all of us that there is still much to be done before we reach a truly sustainable society at multiple levels. If you have an idea about how to make Fermilab more sustainable, email me with your suggestion.

Rod Walton