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Alex Chen

Leaders talk about Earth Day after 40 years

Peter Fimrite

Staff writer Peter Fimrite asked leading environmentalists to discuss the significance of Earth Day. Here are some excerpts.
Denis Hayes
Chairman of Earth Day 2010 and the national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970. He is also president and chief executive officer of the Bullitt Foundation.

Ironically, the first Earth Day was only marginally about the Earth. The issues it addressed — dirty air, filthy water, freeways slashing through vibrant urban neighborhoods, pesticides raining on farm workers, lead paint, the environmental destruction of the Everglades — were personal, local or national. The tidal wave of legislation Earth Day produced during the early 1970s, with its far-ranging impacts on economics, culture and values, were all focused on America.

Today, however, the most important environmental threats and opportunities involve the whole planet. Climate change, pillaging and acidifying the world’s oceans, trade in endangered species, clear-cutting the remaining virgin forests, dead zones at the mouths of every major river, are global in scope.

This began to be true in the 1980s. In 1990, I made a decision to take Earth Day international. The response vastly exceeded my expectations. We had Earth Day events in 144 nations in 1990, and the numbers have crept up every year since. In 2000, we added China. We may break 190 nations this year. Earth Day is now the most widely shared secular holiday in the world. It is impossible to exaggerate the value of such a worldwide social movement.

Slowly, an awareness of our interdependence is dawning. It occurred first in places like the Maldives and the Seychelles, which are likely to cease to exist as a result of rising seas – a phenomenon caused almost entirely by other nations. But this awareness is spreading and it is reinforced each year, everywhere, by Earth Day.
Jared Blumenfeld
Regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Is Earth Day still relevant? Public demonstrations on the first Earth Day in 1970 served as a wake-up call to our nation that the degradation of our air, water and land could no longer be ignored. This watershed moment marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement. From those early days to the present, individuals and communities have banded together to restore streams, recycle bottles and cans , and educate our children on what it means to be stewards to this magnificent planet.

Today … the vast majority of environmentalists are everyday citizens. They are the small-business owner who switches to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, the hairdresser who bicycles to the salon, the dad who brings his own bag to the store, the janitor who helps her firm switch to nontoxic cleaning products, the school that composts leftover food and the faith-based group that asks for the prayers to be copied double-sided.
Jeremy Madsen
Executive director of the Greenbelt Alliance

Earth Day is our annual wake-up call, reminding us that we can create a better future for ourselves, our communities and our planet.

Forty years ago, we rallied against polluting factories and pesticides and we learned to recycle and switch from plastic to paper bags. Today, we celebrate the rise of everyday awareness about environmental issues, even as we face other daunting environmental challenges, such as climate change, that were barely imagined in the 1970s.

Here in the Bay Area, we face the specific challenge of adding 2 million people over the next generation — the equivalent of two cities the size of San Jose — in a way that protects our iconic landscape of farms and rolling hills, reduces greenhouse gas pollution and increases the vitality of our cities and towns.
Mary Nichols
Chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board

Earth Day is about people making personal connections to their environment. Two of the early 1970s sayings that helped me and many others make those connections are “Think globally, act locally” — coined by scientist and philosopher René Dubos — and “Everything is connected to everything else” – biologist Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology.

The specter of global climate change has made the planetary connection to individual and local actions even more apparent and relevant today. Tailpipe exhausts from a car in California add to the buildup of climate-warming carbon dioxide in Kansas, New Zealand or Norway.

The environmental threats on today’s agenda, such as hormone-disrupting chemicals and climate change, are more abstract, insidious and cumulative. And yet I find the Earth Day mantra all the more applicable. We are far more attuned to environmental consequences in our everyday decisions on what to eat, buy and discard. We have 40 years of Earth Days to thank for that.



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