Young Climate Warriors Take Center Stage
A New Generation Takes the Helm
The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970. That was at a time when the Apollo program was pushing the frontier of space further from home with each new mission. We were thrilled to watch every countdown, every blastoff, every spacewalk, every splashdown. It was a whole vocabulary of new and exciting adventures that would leave a lasting mark on our collective psyche.
That was a time when we believed that we could do anything we set our minds to.
When I was young, pictures of launchpads and rockets and command modules decorated my bedroom walls. It was a gallery filled with hope and the promise of things to come. But of all those images, one held more power than all the others: AS08–16–2593 — the first picture of Earth taken from space by a human.
Upon returning home, astronaut William Anders, of the Apollo 8 mission said,
“We came all this way to explore the Moon, but the most important thing, is that we discovered Earth. Let me assure you that, rather than a massive giant, it should be thought of as a fragile Christmas-tree ball, which we should handle with considerable care.”
A generation of smokestacks polluting the air, pesticides running off farms, and rivers so sick that they repeatedly caught fire, were ample testament to the truth of Anders’ heartfelt statement. Together, we recognized that Earth is the only home we’ll ever have. We needed to take better care of it.
The following year, while the Apollo 11 crew were walking on the moon, the US Congress was waking up to this truth. The National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law on the first day of 1970, signaling that this year, this decade, was the right time to address the environmental problems that had become so apparent.
I still remember that first Earth Day. I was in the 6th grade when another pupil, a girl my age, told me about it. She was my first crush. At that time, no school anywhere had an environmental awareness curriculum. We were still too young to be reading Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring, and too immature to do anything but laugh at the Cuyahoga River catching fire, again. But the Apollo pictures hanging on my bedroom wall were enough to stir my soul. The rush of self-awareness, and the flush of seeing myself through that girl’s eyes, piqued my interest. I wanted to be a part of this new movement.
That day had a profound impact on my activities, my future career, and my life values. In high school, I zealously pursued every type of outdoor activity — bicycling, rafting, spelunking, backpacking, rock climbing — anything that let me explore nature. I became interested in the natural sciences as a pathway to understanding the world. In college, I chose geography as my major, and later, for four years, I worked in the field of watershed restoration. Over time, my activism shifted to focus on the dangers of nuclear fission. All of these point back to the values that germinated from the seeds of that first Earth Day.
1970 marked a transition in our generation’s focus. The wild ride of the ’60s were giving way to the serious business of doing things differently.
The free love and communal lifestyle of the hippie generation gave way to the back-to-nature movement. We thumbed through the Whole Earth Catalog, subscribed to Mother Earth News, and avidly awaited each new installment of the Foxfire series. We began cultivating our home-grown food without synthetic fertilizers, taught ourselves how to compost, and needled our civic leaders into action. The peace symbol of the ’60s was supplanted by the recycling symbol of the ’70s. In short, we grew up and got to work.
There was so much more to do than anyone imagined. Smokestacks weren’t just darkening our skies, they were causing acid rain to kill our forests. Three Mile Island jolted us back to threats we no longer wanted to think about. Love Canal and hundreds of other industrial sites like it would be discovered, adding “Superfund site” to our growing vocabulary of horrors.
The word pollution entered our everyday vernacular — it suddenly seemed that nothing and nowhere was safe anymore.
As the ’70s wore on, and the Doomsday Clock was moved forward in time — erasing the hard-fought gains of the movement’s early years — we grew weary of the fight. Our passion for the work dwindled. We allowed corporate PR campaigns to whitewash their misdeeds. The words eco-friendly, sustainable, and clean energy were co-opted with whole new meanings under the righteous mission statements of corporate-speak.
All of this was long before Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and Fukushima. And as bad as they are, those human engineering failures are not on the same scale as melting polar icecaps, deadly heatwaves, floods caused by unprecedented deluges, and wildfires fueled by changes in climate.
When I was young, children were allowed to roam free and discover the wonders of lightning bugs, butterflies, grasshoppers, and frogs. Our idyll was filled with warm sunshine and clear swimming pools and the cheerful chirping of crickets.
Later, when I became a young parent, I wanted to give my children that same sense of wonder and awe. The prevailing pop psychology at that time was that we needed to protect our children from the anxiety of doom and gloom. It was no longer fashionable to mention Amazon deforestation, industrial mining, or our nuclear waste disposal debacle. At home, we purposefully kept our children away from the worries of the world.
I’m ambivalent about that former decision. Was it better to let kids be kids, or would it have been better to instill a stronger sense of environmental awareness?
Today I find it heartening to follow Greta Thunberg, Bruno Rodriguez, Mitzi Jonelle Tan, Xiye Bastida, and countless other young climate warriors around the world. Just as my generation shifted the focus away from other concerns, this new generation of leaders-in-the-making has taken environmental activism in new directions. They see our actions and inaction through the lens of social justice and the underprivileged. They recognize more clearly than we ever did, that environmental issues concern more than just ecosystems, human health, nutrition, and economic sustainability. They feel an existential urgency not for their children or grandchildren, as we did, but for themselves.
Earth Day 2021 has new leaders at the helm. Leaders who haven’t been falsely lulled into complacency. We should heed their calls for justice. Let us encourage these warriors as they carry on where we left off.
We’ve made progress since that first Earth Day 51 years ago, but we must continue to raise our voices on behalf of environmental awareness. There’s so much more to do.