Earth Day 2023: A frank look at where we are - Salish Current
April 21, 2023
Earth Day 2023: A frank look at where we are
Kathy Fletcher

Earth Day has continued to change lives since first observed in 1970, inspiring and motivating individuals and nations to care for the planet. But a frank look at progress reveals much still to be done. (‘The Blue Marble‘, Apollo 17 crew)

April 21, 2023
Earth Day 2023: A frank look at where we are
Kathy Fletcher


The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

The first Earth Day changed my life. I was a college student in 1970, majoring in biology, planning to graduate in the spring of 1971, completely undecided about what I would do next. On that first Earth Day everything clicked for me. My training in biology had met my activist heart. I realized that what I wanted to do with my life was to save the planet. 

Earth Day has continued to inspire and motivate me and countless others as the years have gone by and as we have seen both progress and failure to take care of Mother Earth.

Earth Day 1970 was not the beginning of the environmental movement. The National Park system was founded in 1872; the Sierra Club dates from 1892; President Teddy Roosevelt was a dedicated conservationist. Fast forward to the eve of the first Earth Day — the National Environmental Policy Act became law in 1969. 

Building on this history, Earth Day awakened and activated the public, the media and politicians. It helped build political momentum for an impressive series of basic environmental laws in the U.S. — including the Clean Water and Air acts, the Endangered Species Act and Superfund.

The first Earth Day also marked a fundamental change in focus. “Ecology” was not only about pristine, wild places. “Conservation” was not only about setting aside natural areas and protecting wild animals. Earth Day helped bring the “environment” home to where we all live and work, whether urban or rural. 

Earth Day at its inception was hugely political. It grew out of shock and outrage over burning rivers and toxic waste sites in people’s neighborhoods. It was a call to action for laws and penalties to hold polluters accountable, both locally and globally.

As time went on, polluters became effective at confusing and complicating debate about laws and regulations. Laws on the books did not necessarily mean they were carried out. Earth Day itself evolved to shift emphasis from corporate to individual responsibility. Instead of focusing on the corporate and government decisions that allowed continued manufacture and use of toxic chemicals, permitted discharges of millions of gallons of pollution into rivers and marine waters and air pollution from coal plants and myriad other sources, the public was urged to think about what each of us personally can do — drive less, pick up litter, plant a tree, recycle.

Individual responsibility is important to be sure, and knowing that each of us can make a contribution to a healthy planet is motivating and true. Getting our hands dirty restoring damaged habitats, making changes in our unsustainable lifestyles, and developing an environmental ethic in ourselves and our children are all things we need to do.

If the climate crisis has taught us anything, it is that systematic changes are needed at full scale — far beyond the reach of actions we can take as individuals. Laws need to be passed and enforced. Unsustainable uses of the public’s forests, oceans, air and land need to be stopped. Toxic chemicals need to be banned and toxic sites cleaned up. Transportation and energy systems need to be built for the benefit of everyone and the environment too. These are all things that require policies, government action, funding, and incentives for businesses and individuals to do the right thing. And of course, we need to elect people who will deliver these solutions.

We are also only beginning to confront the racism and colonial attitudes that underlie the deterioration of Earth’s health. Here in North America, without regard for their sovereignty and ownership, First Nations’ and tribes’ land, food resources and cultural treasures were stolen and destroyed. Children were forcibly removed to residential schools in an effort to erase their cultural traditions and indigenous knowledge. Pollution and blight have disproportionately and dramatically affected the health and well-being of people of color. Look where the worst polluters, largest highways and biggest garbage dumps and toxic sites are located, and look who lives there. The disgraceful legacy of environmental racism is alive today as these communities address poverty and health problems, and work to maintain and rebuild cultural and community strength. 

Just as in 1970, we are at another major reckoning point in our relationship to our home planet. Despite huge progress in pollution control, toxic cleanups and habitat protection, we are face to face with the question of whether all we have done is too little, too late. More, rather than fewer species face extinction. And climate change is literally threatening life on earth. On this Earth Day 2023, let’s take a frank look at where we are, celebrate what we’ve accomplished since 1970, and re-dedicate ourselves to the job ahead.

— Contributed by Kathy Fletcher

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