Environmental Almanac

Earth Week a time to engage in political action

Follow up on feel-good activities with political action to celebrate Earth Week as it was meant to be.
A sunny, outdoor shot of a crowd in matching orange t-shirts listening to organizers.

Participants in the Boneyard Creek Community Day clean-up celebrating Earth Week. Rob Kanter

When Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin put out the call for observance of the first Earth Day, he did so on the premise that awareness—especially among young people—would lead to action. He wrote, “I am convinced that all we need to do to bring an overwhelming insistence of the new generation that we stem the tide of environmental disaster is to present the facts clearly and dramatically.”

So, Earth Day was conceived as a “teach-in,” and as a teach-in, it was intended to communicate knowledge that would lead to political action. And it did. The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act all provide testament to that.

But while those laws and other policy changes that followed the first Earth Day surely have had good effects, they have not turned the larger tide of environmental destruction. What’s more, over the past four decades we’ve proven to be more capable of understanding our environmental plight than fixing it.

Knowing what’s wrong isn’t enough.

If you’re listening to this commentary, you probably already know that humans are extinguishing other species before we even name them. And you know our children are born “pre-polluted” with chemicals whose complex effects on human systems are little understood. And you know our methods of “resource” extraction are creating scars that will mar the planet for generations. And you have easy access to the wide range of scientific evidence that climate change will disrupt civilization in ways you’d rather not even think about. To top things off, you also know that voluntary, individual “green” efforts are sufficient to solve none of these problems.

Why bring all of this up during Earth Week this year?

Not to dissuade you from taking part in the feel-good activities that now seem to dominate observances of the occasion, but to encourage you to participate with an eye toward political action.

For example, it feels good to spend some time picking up trash along the banks of a stream. Doing so gives you the opportunity to socialize with other people who share with you an appreciation for the natural world, and when you’re finished, you can see the change you’ve made. But picking up litter benefits a stream in a pretty limited way. So if you celebrate Earth Day by participating in a cleanup, how about also letting your voice be heard in the political process that determines the long-term health of our waterways?

On a local level, that may mean attending meetings of a village or county board to speak up for the public interest in clean water for people and wildlife. (There seems to be no shortage of opportunity for this sort of action in east central Illinois in the near future.) But the long-term health of waterways is affected even more by policies enacted at state and national levels, where it’s very difficult for individuals to be heard.

Your best bet for affecting policy at the state and national levels is to seek out and support the groups that advocate for the public interest there. Fortunately, we have no shortage of those in east central Illinois, either: Prairie Rivers Network, Sierra Club and Faith in Place to name three. That, to me, is the best way to ensure the good will and optimism that have come to be associated with Earth Day can bring about the kind of change that really matters.