How Earth Day began |

How Earth Day began

Susan Wood

The year of the first Earth Day was a turbulent one in the United States.

In May 1970, four students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University were shot and killed by National Guardsman.

The advent of fiber optics came into our consciousness, while Apollo 13 left our atmosphere.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” hit the airwaves, and guitarist Jimi Hendrix died.

It was into this world that Earth Day was born.

Former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin, who consequently was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, proposed the first nationwide environmental recognition as a protest.

At the time, Americans were slurping leaded gasoline through massive V-8 engines, and industry belched out by-products with little restrictions over anti-pollution standards.

Earth Day brought the environment, or the lack of satisfaction in it, to the forefront of the United States’ political agenda.

More than 20 million people took to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate a healthy, sustainable environment. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the planet.

Groups fighting against oil spills, polluting factories, power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, urban sprawl and the extinction of wildlife realized they shared common ground.

Through the years, the annual event altered its theme.

Last year for the turning of the millennium, Earth Day’s focus became global warming and a push for clean energy.

High technology was used as a vehicle for environmental awareness in 2000, linking activists from around the world.

Among them, the Sierra Club – which is currently trying to get a Lake Tahoe chapter off the ground – recommitted its dedication to celebrating its founder’s birthday into the next century.

If John Muir lived until his 163rd birthday Saturday, the legendary Sierra Nevada hiker may have been proud of some aspects to the public’s environmental awareness – and ashamed of others.

To him, Earth Day was every day.

Muir, who as stories are told roamed the Sierra Nevada with sometimes only water and a loaf of bread, made environmental activism his life’s work.

The farmer, inventor and conservationist fought bruising battles to protect the mountain range, including Yosemite National Park.

Also a writer, he published “Our National Parks” in 1901, drawing the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt two years later.

Roosevelt met Muir in Yosemite and laid conservation plans beneath the trees in the majestic valley.

One of the nation’s oldest nonprofit conservation organizations wants to plant one million more trees for Earth Day 2001 Sunday, which is celebrated in South Lake Tahoe on Saturday. It’s called the Global ReLeaf program.

(Sidebar): tease a “clearcutting” wire story*

Like the Earth, the Sierra Club has gone through its own transformation, flopping back and forth between its political roots and social ties.

The 670,000 member environmental organization is still balancing the two missions, the West’s new Regional Director Carl Zichella said with 12 years under his belt.

Zichella, who started serving California, Nevada and Hawaii in January, wants to make protecting the Sierra Nevada forests one of his top priorities.

He’s worked to save one million acres slated for clearcutting over the next decade in the Plumas and Calaveras counties. To get a perspective, that’s half the amount Congress saved in the 1984 Wilderness Act.

Another top priority of Zichella that affects Lake Tahoe revolves around sprawl.

“It’s true the foothills are under extreme pressure,” he said from his Sacramento office. “It’s important to preserve before it’s lost. Unfortunately, with unbridled sprawl, the thing that’s lost before we know we have it might have the cure for cancer or AIDS,” he said, referring to plants holding medicinal properties.

That’s why Zichella wants to provide travelers with more modes of transit.

“We have found that whenever rail service is added, it’s used,” he said.

Energy efficiency and renewables are the key components to maintaining life on the planet, he insists. And the changes each individual makes can be simple ones.

“For anybody who’s ever wanted to tell their utility company to go to hell, they have the power now,” he said, listing turning down the air conditioner and changing to florescent lightbulbs as changes.

Instead of an energy crisis, Zichella sees the situation as an opportunity.

“More power plants are certainly a part of the solution, I don’t doubt that. There’s no escaping we need capacity. But we need to replace the dinosaur fossil-fuel plants cranking out the pollution, ” he said.

Scientists believe carbon dioxide is the key component to global warming.

What does Zichella think of President George W. Bush’s controversial decision to refrain from upgrading carbon dioxide emission standards for industry?

“I think it’s phenomenally short-sighted with horrendous unenlightened consequences – not only for the United States, but for the whole world,” he said. “We’re changing the chemistry of the whole world.”

Requests for responses from the U.S. Department of the Interior were left unanswered.

Sierra Club National Conservation Director Bruce Hamilton, who has waged battles over the environment for 25 years, threw overpopulation into the mix of problems plaguing the Earth – which now holds more than 6 billion inhabitants.

Hamilton said Bush strikes out on all global environment issues, as the “renegade” of the world.

He turned his attention to what ordinary citizens can do.

“When you think about Earth Day this weekend, think about what you can do,” Hamilton said.

“Our single-biggest step is to increase the efficiency and reduce the pollution from the automobile,” he said, taking aim at the auto industry for creating such a demand for sports utility vehicles.

“And those who pay $28,000 or $50,000 for a car can pay for the added efficiency,” Hamilton added.

The Sierra Club has been lobbying for Congress to enact a fuel efficiency standard amounting to at least 45mpg in vehicles.

But this will take the support of Detroit. Vehicles with that kind of gas mileage appear to be an endangered species – another issue for Hamilton.

With the changes in the Earth’s atmosphere, Hamilton cited studies that endangered species disappear at a rate of 10,000 times faster than normal. That equates to one in five species going extinct within the next 25 years.

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