Op-Ed: 50th Earth Day: Time To Consider Wiser Course - We Are All Of This Earth And Dependent On It
By Bernie McGurl, Lackawanna River Conservation Association
The following op-ed appeared in the April 22 Earth Day edition of the Scranton Times--
It was sometime in Winter of 1970 when my friend and fellow University of Scranton undergraduate Dan Mallon asked me to join with him and a few dozen activist students to organize an Environmental “Teach In” event he referred to as Earth Day to be held that Spring on April 22nd.
My first reaction was, “Shouldn’t we keep our focus on ending the War in Vietnam before we try and save the Earth?”
Dan shared some thoughts that the War was just one manifestation of how our human society was out of balance with the Earth.
We also talked about how that imbalance was reflected in the concerns about economic and racial justice voiced by the late Dr. Martin Luther King.
Dan got us all connected to the Earth Day effort led by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, and Denis Hayes, a young member of the Senator’s staff tasked with making Earth Day happen across the country and across the world as well.
It was a critical time in American history, our country was deeply divided by the Vietnam War. We were grieving the loss of Jack and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King at the hand of assassins.
The hot war in Vietnam and the looming Cold War formed a backdrop to our daily lives.
The 1960’s saw the publication of “A Silent Spring” by Rachael Carson, a wildlife biologist who demonstrated the link between pesticides like DDT and the dramatic decline in bird populations.
Later in 1969 while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon, the Cuyahoga in Cleveland caught on fire for the umpteenth time and an offshore oil well spilled 3 million gallons of crude onto the beaches of Santa Barbara.
Americans of all political views were ready to find some common ground which they could agree upon.
Earth Day and an appreciation for this wonderful and unique planet were ideas that everyone could identify with.
Against the tragic background of the war there was a rich environmental firmament that grew symbolically from the earth itself.
The administration of Richard Nixon should be remembered for some remarkably progressive pieces of federal legislation and policy.
Although he was dismissive of “environmentalists” as a bunch of dirty hippies, Nixon anticipated the Earth Day spirit in his State of the Union message that January.
“The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?”
He had supported the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and he would go on to lead the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Now, the fact that he had an ‘old’ New Deal veteran, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as a key adviser didn’t hurt either.
Congress passed the Clean Water Act over Nixon’s Veto in 1972. But that should be put in a federalist perspective as that arch “conservative” Franklin D. Roosevelt vetoed the first Clean Water Act in 1938, based on state’s rights concerns.
By the way, the 1938 and 1972 Acts that were vetoed by FDR and Nixon respectively, were both based on the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Act of 1937.
That remarkable piece of legislation was advanced under the leadership of Governor Gifford Pinchot.
Sadly, it took another 29 years for municipalities like Scranton to comply with the Clean Streams Law and establish a Sewer treatment system.
The 1966 initiation of the Scranton Treatment Plant was the beginning of the renaissance of our Lackawanna River.
The 1972 Congressional override and enactment of the Clean Water Act can be linked to the strong environmental spirit catalyzed by the first Earth Day and reignited each April 22 since.
The Courts have sustained that Congressional wisdom for the most part as well.
The Cuyahoga river has not caught on fire since 1969 and by 1973, the Lackawanna was deemed safe enough for the first Canoe-a-thon.
The water and habitat quality of America's rivers has improved profoundly since the 1970’s but the unresolved crisis in the Flint, Michigan water supply is still all too common across the country.
Now as we mark Earth Day 2020, we face a nightmare of a crisis that a strong environmental awareness could have anticipated.
We find that our resilience in the face of an invisible enemy is challenged and our reaction is fractured along partisan lines.
How we respond to this “Biological” Pearl Harbor will determine our standing among nations for the balance of this century and beyond.
As we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and struggle to reignite our economy we need to look and listen to the Earth and to a balanced understanding of our relationships with its natural systems.
This needs to be the basis for us to build a Resilient and Sustainable Society.
Renewable energy development and production can help to create hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in private investment opportunities across the Appalachian Mountains and Middle Atlantic Region.
With our human and natural resources, the Lackawanna and Wyoming Valleys are well positioned to take the lead in that effort.
This can help us grow a robust information economy linked with a strong, green, nimble and globally competitive manufacturing base.
Environmental, social and economic justice and equity must become central to the foundations of domestic and foreign policy.
These values must be integrated into every trade agreement and every supply chain world-wide.
If this pandemic tells us anything it is that we have been, and will be forever, citizens of a global village.
No wall or Ocean can change that.
As the poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.”
We are all of this Earth and dependent on it.
Bernie McGurl is the Executive Director and co-founder of the Lackawanna River Conservation Association and has worked since its founding in 1987 “to promote the conservation, protection and appropriate management of the Lackawanna River and its Watershed resources.”
The Lackawanna River was named the 2020 Pennsylvania River of the Year and culminates over 30 years of work by the Lackawanna River Conservation Association and its many partners in Susquehanna, Wayne, Lackawanna and Luzerne County.
McGurl said of the honor-- “This honor is a strong validation of our community's work over the past 30 years to rediscover the incredible natural resource that is the Lackawanna River. The vision for a revitalized river that has been shared by the Lackawanna River Conservation Association has been taken to heart by more and more of our fellow citizens every year!”
The waterway had been adversely impacted by the anthracite coal mining industry and railroad, industrial, and urban development over the past 200 years.
With the abandonment of the anthracite mines in the 1960s and the development of modern sanitary sewage treatment works, the river has staged a strong recovery.
The LRCA was created by local citizens in 1987 to promote restoration and conservation of the Lackawanna River and its watershed resources in northeast Pennsylvania.
LRCA is a nonprofit, nonpolitical organization promoting the river through education, public involvement, consensus building, partnerships and hands-on opportunities for all ages.
Since 1987, LRCA has worked with other community groups and public agencies to plan and promote projects addressing water pollution, recreation, community development, land and water conservation, public involvement, and public policy decision-making that affects the river and its watershed.
Critical to its recovery and fulfilling the ambitions of the Lackawanna River community were investments by the state through a variety of programs, including the Environmental Stewardship (Growing Greener) Fund, Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund and more.
Now, the Lackawanna River is a vibrant, cold-water “Class A” fishery in its middle and upper reaches, and a waterway that attracts more paddlers every year.
(Photo: Bernie McGurl, Scranton Times.)
Earth Day 50 PA
Visit the Earth Day 50 PA website for more special events, Earth Day 1970 remembrances, environmental reading lists and more.
Related Articles - Remembering Earth Day 1970:
Related Articles- Earth Day:
Op-Ed: My Fellow Conservatives Are Out Of Touch On The Environment - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge
Op-Ed: Earth Day 1970 Changed My Life - Carol Collier, The Academy Of Natural Sciences
Op-Ed: Earth Day 50: A Wakeup Call To The Scientific Community - Science Matters -Roland Wall, Director, Ruth Patrick Center For Environmental Research
Op-Ed: Earth Day - 50 Years And Counting - Joanne Shafer, Centre County Recycling Coordinator
DEP’s Blog: Earth Day 50 PA: DEP Staff Reflections
DEP’s Blog: By Acting On Climate, We Help Make Every Day Earth Day - DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell
[Posted: April 24, 2020]
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