Thursday, April 22, 2004

Earth Day, 34, credited with big change

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Harold Johnson (left) and Levon Baskin sort recyclables at the Rumpke Recycling Center on Vine Street Wednesday afternoon.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/STEVEN M. HERPPICH

Earth Day came first.

Before the Clean Air Act, before the Endangered Species Act, even before the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there was Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson's idea in 1969 to focus public attention - and, eventually, to force political action - on environmental issues by having a nationwide celebration and "teach-in" called Earth Day.

The idea, launched on April 22, 1970, worked.

Thirty-four years later, 50 million people across the planet - including thousands across Greater Cincinnati - still pause to talk and learn about respecting nature on Earth Day.

Although today is officially Earth Day, Greater Cincinnati already celebrated it last weekend at Sawyer Point. A handful of other events are scheduled in Greater Cincinnati through this weekend.

But the nature of Earth Day has evolved over three decades. Scores of environmental laws and regulations were created in the wake of the first Earth Day, and have proven successful at cleaning the country's air and water while protecting millions of acres in national refuges, preserves and parks.

Pati Schultz, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Cincinnati, headed up last weekend's event at Sawyer Point. She said the focus of Earth Day in the 21st century is more about steps that individuals can take to protect the environment.

How and where to recycle electronics, paint and other materials was the focus this year - a contrast to the more general education that happened on early Earth Days that focused on the need for federal law to protect the environment and natural resources.

"I think things have changed and that people are more aware (today) of health concerns from environmental impacts and people are making sure their homes are safer and the products they're using are environmentally friendly," Schultz said. "So we used the day as one of education to make people in the Tristate aware of what (recycling opportunities) are available to them."

The biggest problem with today's version of Earth Day, some environmentalists say, is that many people miss the real message: A change of lifestyle is needed to preserve Earth, not simply a day of celebration.

"Earth Day is a lot like other things, over the course of many years people get used to hearing a message and begin to think of it as an event instead of a way of living their lives," said Jeff Aluotto, manager of Hamilton County's Solid Waste District, which is responsible for running all of the county's recycling programs. "That's the danger."

Ben Urmston, a theology professor at Xavier University for 32 years who is active in environmental issues, said he thinks future Earth Days need to recapture that original vision and preach the gospel of fundamental change in the way people think about and interact with the environment.

"We need to do much, much more and that the original vision (of Earth Day) needs to be recaptured," he said.

"We need to face reality, and part of reality is that unless we change our lifestyle and our food delivery systems, unless we have a different attitude toward economics, unless we have a different attitude toward corporations, we're not going to save the earth."


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