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Earth Day in a Pandemic

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Polluted Lake Washington in the 50s (public domain)


Every April 22 is Earth Day, a time to appreciate our environment and consider what more we can do to protect it. But this year is special—no, not just because the Coronavirus is raging and we’re confined to our own micro-spheres, but because Earth Day is turning 50. That’s fifty years of public demonstration about pollution, climate change, recycling—and preserving and respecting the natural world around us.

One of the few things approved outside the four walls of our homes is…to take a walk. Yes, brave the open air and notice that spring hasn’t been cancelled, that trees are blooming and daffodils are giving way to tulips. We might observe for the first time the front yards in our neighborhoods, and understand in a new way what “environment” can mean. So let’s take a pause from our confined indoor lives to consider the venerable history of Earth Day.

When 17-year-old activist Greta Thunberg bellowed her emotional accusation to her elders at the United Nations Climate Summit in September, 2019, she charged her audience with complicity in a selfish plot. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth! How dare you?”

While her tirade earned her the Time Magazine Person of the Year distinction for 2019, a Nobel Peace Prize nomination and seven other awards, Ms. Thunberg is far from the first to plead for the preservation and salvation of a healthy ecology. And certain governments and industries need to be called out for their aggression on our planet, especially on this half-century Earth Day.

We see this vividly in the published photos from space of urban areas before, and during pandemic “stay home” edicts. China went swiftly from a polluted scourge to a nearly clear image. Cities in the US, including New York, Los Angeles and Seattle now look markedly less dingy.

Once we started seeing our environments deteriorate, Americans became alarmed. The very elders Ms. Thunberg so venomously blames were taught reverence for the environment, in school and in how we behave. And many of us continue every day to do what we can to treat nature tenderly and respectfully.

The American conservation movement officially began with the creation of our first National Parks, areas of beauty and significance—as well as size—that could not be defiled. The beauty of nature was honored in 19th Century art by Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church, as well as Thomas Moran, who painted a Colorado mountain with snow-filled crevasses that appeared like a giant cross, widely thought to indicate divine approval of our land (as explained in my husband’s book God’s Hand on America).

President Theodore Roosevelt was a prominent conservationist, gathering scientists and experts to determine the best ways to protect public lands and the species inhabiting them. He established National Forests (1891), National Monuments (1906) and game and bird reserves (1903). In the same era, John Muir established the Sierra Club (1892) and with George Bird Grinnell and T. Gilbert Pearson, the Audubon Society (1896), named after a famous painter of birds.

Of course with the advances of industrialization in the early part of the 20th Century came potent, if inadvertent, harm to the environment. Cars that allowed homes in suburbs spewed pollutants; dams that brought electricity cost the lives of fish and fowl, degrading river ecosystems. Factories that made machines and goods emitted toxins into the air and water, and all the goodies and packaging made of plastic has nowhere to go but landfills—if not around the necks of hapless seabirds. Conservatives aren’t heartless about the planet, but debated the extent to balance affordable lifestyle improvements with environmental safeguards. In large measure, Americans gained both.

When I was a child in Los Angeles, I recall during recess seeing tangibly yellow air while on the playground.  But with the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act of 1970, auto pollution dramatically reduced, and even the air in Los Angeles became markedly better. According the EPA, new cars belch 98-99% less tailpipe pollutants than in the 1960s. They run on fuel without lead, releasing 90% less sulfur. The visible success of the Clean Air Act spurred industry toward self-regulation, and then the Pollution Prevention Act (1990) codified requirements toward eliminating hazardous substances used and disbursed in manufacturing.

There’s no more heartening story of humans correcting their environmental errors than what happened here in the northwest. From the 1880s, the young city of Seattle and other communities edging Lake Washington used it to deposit their untreated waste (at the same time Seattle was pumping lake water to its citizens for drinking). The fledgling city of Kirkland, for example, founded as a logging town, expanded with the construction of a steel mill where Costco now stands. Steel was never produced, but residents used the mill as a drop-off for their raw sewage.  Cities’ dumping went on for years, combining with industrial waste from lakeside industries like coal mining, Boeing, Paccar, shipyards and logging. The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound says “In the 1950s, an estimated 20 million gallons per day of sewage effluent entered Lake Washington from Seattle and other communities surrounding the lake.” A chemist analyzing the water in 1942 exclaimed, “My God, this is almost pure urine!”

After detergents added phosphates, the lake periodically got algae blooms, and by the mid ‘50s, fish were dwindling and the water was too polluted for swimming. When the blooms died off, they’d decompose on the shore, earning the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s (remember that paper?) 1963 moniker, “Lake Stinko.”

Towns around the lake responded by building sewage treatment plants, but they were too few to make the sweeping changes needed. To the rescue came a county-wide ballot measure, the Metropolitan Plan of 1958, creating a government body charged with devising and executing a long-range plan. It was carried out in stages, installing networks of massive pipes for sewage draining, treatment and disposal.

The effort worked. Transparency of the lake, which had been as low as 30 inches in 1964, swiftly increased to 10 feet in 1968, and 25 feet in 1993. Phosphates were nearly eliminated, zooplankton returned, small fish replenished, and sockeye salmon, whose numbers got dangerously low, rejuvenated. Recreation on the lake by humans is now unimpeded by stench or slime.

So just as humans can despoil their environments, we can also revive them. Our growing awareness about carbon intensity has resulted in reductions in emissions—currently the lowest in 20 years. A Gallup poll annually asked Americans whether they would give priority to protection of the environment even if it meant lower economic growth, and over the last five years the divide for the environment (now 65%) over economic growth (now only 30% would give it priority) has grown increasingly stronger.

Right now, our personal environments, shrunken by mandates to stay home and edged with stress, leave us feeling constrained. But the pandemic will recede—likely due to man’s creativity in developing a vaccine or effective treatment—and we’ll widen our perspectives to the broader world, where we can hike within 6 feet of our companions, attend sporting events and congregate in restaurants, symphony halls and churches.

So as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, let us think kindly of our planet.

On a personal level, improve your own sphere. Pick up trash when you’re out walking, recycle and re-use, buy less and donate more. Refill a water bottle rather than buying disposables, use e-bills rather than paper, put out a bird feeder, change to LED lightbulbs. Forego your car one day a week (perhaps the same day you turn off your cell phone!)

And enjoy the outdoors. Recite my father-in-law’s favorite Psalm, number 104, which extolls the variety in our world: “How abundant are Your works, God; All of them You made with wisdom! Full is the earth with your possessions!” Most of all, revel in nature every day you’re alive, appreciating the beauty of our magnificent home.


Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist and author of seven books, most recently Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage. Reach her at DianeMedved.com. She’s married to radio talk host and author Michael Medved, with whom she’s raised three children and now enjoys two adorable toddler grand-daughters within sight of pollution-free Lake Washington.



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