22 - 2009

Why our grandparents didn’t have an Earth Day

Today, April 22, is Earth Day in the United States.

Home Depot stores celebrated last weekend by giving away CFL light bulbs, and the company has a special Web page explaining their “Eco Options” logo to help consumers identify more energy-efficient products. President Barack Obama will celebrate by pushing a huge energy bill that could dramatically cut carbon emissions (by up to 83 percent by 2050, according to National Public Radio this morning), but about whose economic consequences Republicans are issuing dire warnings.

My personal Earth Day observance

How will I celebrate? Well, most likely by continuing to do what we always do, and trying to do it a little bit better. I’m sitting here, writing in natural light; I have a load of laundry in the washer (in cold water), and will hang it out to dry later. I’ll try not to drive too much, although I have a meeting to attend and a friend to meet later today.

In the past few weeks, we’ve taken a few steps to strengthen our little corner of Earth by planting three new trees in our yard (a pear tree and two apple trees) and moving toward converting some of our pavement to plantings in the back yard.

I remember first hearing about Earth Day in college, when celebrations started to grow following the 20th anniversary of the first formal Earth Day observance in 1970. At that time, I was part of a campus environmental group, Earth Coalition, and had been a vegetarian for a year or so.

It’s ironic, of course, that the environmental movement started just as industrialism was gaining momentum and people were having a greater impact on the Earth than ever. Many of our individual paths probably reflect that disparity — I’m sure I had less impact on the planet as a college student than I do today. I didn’t buy much, because I didn’t have any money; I lived in one room in a dorm instead of a single-family home; I didn’t own a car for years and so walked everywhere or took public transit. I didn’t think a lot about environmentalism all the time, because I lived it.

What would great-grandma do?

Our great-grandparents didn’t need an Earth Day. Environmentalism, for most people, was the default setting. They didn’t have cars, or maybe just one. Hanging out laundry was a no-brainer, and many of them were still washing laundry with a wringer washer. Food was not shipped from around the globe; they ate what they had — that’s why an orange at Christmas was a big treat. In our great-grandparents’ generation or shortly earlier, most people still had just one pair of shoes, or maybe a couple, perhaps saved for special occasions. They made their own clothes, greeting cards and gifts. They shared homes. They raised chickens and likely walked to a local market, or saved shopping for one big trip for necessities. “Carbon miles” was not an issue, because people generally grew where they were planted.

Is life better now? In so many ways, yes. We have lifesaving surgeries and vaccinations that prevent horrible diseases; clean drinking water and all the entertainment we can stand (and more!). We know about the world’s many cultures and can go see them in person; if a family member moves far away, we no longer must bid farewell, not knowing if we’ll ever speak to our loved one again.

What’s the solution?

The argument, of course, is that we’ve gone too far with the technology, energy, convenience.

I’d like to celebrate Earth Day by taking a moment to honor what we have in common with our ancestors’ simpler lives, and then recommitting to honor that simplicity all year.

I suppose this is the old “think globally, act locally” slogan. But really it’s thinking locally, acting locally, and realizing that our actions affect a much bigger world.

I’m going to take a walk, watch the birds at my feeder, and maybe take some extra time to appreciate them and the world we live in. (We found this great site for learning to recognize bird songs, at least in North America.)

How will you celebrate today?

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