Whatever glamour there was in the crusade for the environment at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970 has long since yielded to the inevitable: What once was a protest against obvious insults to the earth is now a lengthy legislative debate about sewage discharge. Instead of environmental sit-ins and teach-ins, the nation now has weekend workshops on EPA compliance.
The earth still is insulted regularly, but the difference now is that channels for remedial action are bureaucratically in place. One doesn’t protest the potenial loss of the furbish lousewort; one hires a lawyer and sues under the Endangered Species Act. This is victory of a sort, even if shorn of passion. It is also the difference between courting and marriage: however pleased you may be with having made the commitment til death do you part, the heart-thumping newness of it all eventually becomes quelled by prosaic familiarity.
It is hardly surprising that programs celebrating Earth Day today are full of music and good cheer and empowering speeches and don’t forget to use the recycling containers. The level of lowest demand allows for the inclusion of the greatest number of people. And who knows but whether a child listening to the speeches of her elders will leap up and change the world forever.
Heaven knows, she is needed. For despite the achievements of cleaner air and water compared with a generation ago, record levels of some pollutants are still emitted into the air and new dangers, from minuscule levels of toxins in the water and amorphous nonpoint source pollution, are being better understood.
The intention of the founders of Earth Day was to persuade Americans to focus on how they treated the planet. The day has been a terrific success in this regard. But the hard slogging has come with the question of what the public is supposed to do with its environmental awareness .
And if the passion is to return to the day, the answer probably needs to be something besides go to court or Congress.