Of all the questions which can come before this nation, there is none which compares in importance to the great central task of leaving this land an even better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on. Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuation of the nation.
----------- Theodore Roosevelt, 1908
Today many in the United States and around the world are observing Earth Day, a tradition which originated in 1969 as a pet project of Senator Gaylord Nelson and other early environmental activists who saw it as an opportunity to express concern over the state of the environment and in particular the threat which they felt that human use of natural resources posed to Mother Earth. It was conceived as a day of protest and demonstration, an offshoot of the student activism of the 1960s. Nelson wrote:
If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the political agenda.
The first observance in the Spring of 1970 was enormously successful, claiming 20 million marchers worldwide. It helped raise public consciousness about environmental issues and added a new and positive issue to the repertoire of the activists of the period, one which could appeal to a much broader spectrum of the public than opposition to the war or promoting various socialist causes.
Earth Day became a national phenomenon, attracting activities and observances every year around the nation. It retained the character of a protest, largely promoted by the political left, with a lot of hand-wringing, anti-corporatism, scaremongering and a certain amount of luddism. In the last 37 years it has remained strong on message and protest, but weak on positive solutions.
In at least one way this is unfortunate, because Earth Day has largely supplanted the older and in many ways much more positive observence of Arbor Day, the celebration of nature which I grew up with. On Arbor Day students around the nation would go out with their schoolmates and plant trees to enrich their local environment and green-up the nation. The first Arbor Day was in Nebraska in April of 1872, created by J. Sterling Morton who was distressed by the lack of trees in the plains state. Kids loved taking a day off from school to plant trees and the observance went nationwide by 1888 and continued for almost 100 years.
With Earth Day and Arbor Day falling in the same month and Earth Day having a lot more political support, Arbor Day has largely fallen into obscurity. Their website has turned into a tree-marketing enterprise, hardly anyone goes out planting anymore, and I doubt most people reading this even realize that Arbor Day is next Friday. All the focus is on Earth Day. It's just too confusing to have two special days honoring nature one week apart, and Earth Day has stolen the limelight.
It's a sad trend, because the difference between Earth Day and Arbor Day embodies the difference between environmentalism and conservationism. It's the difference between just complaining about the environment and actually doing something to improve it.
No matter how many people go out marching with signs protesting Exxon and the Iraq War and CAFTA and all the irrelevant issues the SWP and Moveon.org brings out to make every march on every issue look the same, what are they really accomplishing beyond more of the same old empty posturing? Oh wait, all the kids at my daughter's school are wearing green for Earth Day. Boy, there's an accomplishment.
I'd much rather see those kids leave their airconditioned schools and venture out into nature with their class to plant trees. Wouldn't it be nice to see the protestors put down their signs, put aside their agendas and pick up shovels and saplings and hit the roadsides and parks of every city, improving the natural environment of the communities where they live. It may be a bit more work and a bit less self-indulgent, but it sure would be nice to see people outdoors actually doing something positive.
So screw Earth Day. Blow it off. Wait a week and go out and plant a tree and actually do something real for the environment on Arbor Day.