THE COLORED CHALK LETTERS Wednesday morning were big enough to fill the Chatham sidewalk with three lines:
“EARTH DAY IS A PROTEST.”
The wind blurred the artist’s name.
Half a century on from the first Earth Day gatherings, what happened then is worth remembering if only for what we knew and when we knew it.
We did not know then with any certainty that the Earth’s climate was warming as the result of human activity. Exxon did but wasn’t telling. Still, the people gathered.
We did know then how acid rain was poisoning the forests and aquatic life of the Catskills. The causes were coal-fired power plants in cities and states to our south and west, spewing emissions that drifted our way as did the airborne toxins from other fossil fuel consumption. People gathered to learn the truth.
It was no secret then that sections of the Hudson River were so polluted fish could not survive in sections as far north as Albany. But we were fighting a war in Southeast Asia. And yet, people gathered for Earth Day.
Now, when we get outside we are distracted by dodging the specter of the coronavirus. Columbia County residents don’t see evidence of how much cleaner the air is because of less vehicle traffic. Ours is a rural county where air quality measurements are seldom taken. We make do with before-and-after photos that show us how clear the air has become over major metro areas as worldwide quarantining continues.
We take the word of others that air quality is improving. It is unusually chilly right now. Does that affect the warming atmosphere? No. That’s weather, not climate.
But the air we breathe does signal success. It is cleaner than it was 50 years ago. Vehicles emit less fossil fuel pollution and federal standards were scheduled to become more stringent… unless President Trump manages to sabotage pending higher mileage requirements, which he threatens to do. Preventing that step backwards into a dirtier, more unhealthy atmosphere is something our congressional delegation–Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Representative Antonio Delgado–must put at the top of their legislative priorities.
The Hudson River is cleaner now than it was 50 years ago. Efforts to clean up the river started before Earth Day but more remains to be done. For up to seven years after that first Earth Day, General Electric was allowed to dump toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the upper Hudson River. The cleanup is far from over, although GE wants the federal government to declare it has finished the job.
If the job is finished, why does the state Department of Environmental Conservation post signs warning against consumption of fish caught in the river? GE must continue to remove PCBs from the Hudson. The legacy of pollution cannot be wished away. GE profited from dumping those PCBs. Time now for the company to pay for completing a thorough cleanup along the shores of mid-Hudson Valley counties and on down to New York harbor.
Who will recall what was said this 50th Earth Day? Possibly the FBI, which cared about the first gatherings. Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME) revealed in 1971 that FBI agents had spied on the 1970 Earth Day rally in Washington, D.C. According to The New York Times front page story back then, Sen. Muskie called the FBI’s involvement “a dangerous threat to fundamental constitutional rights.” His was a brave statement for that era.
Some things never change. So maybe the works of the Chatham sidewalk artist will end up in some homeland security archive. Or, the feds should link to our archive, which for now is freely available.
The government’s paranoia about the peaceful and lawful gatherings that first Earth Day did not stop Congress from passing the Clean Air Act. President Nixon signed it into law December 31, 1970. It laid the foundation for regulations to reduce air pollution, and subsequent amendments have expanded that authority. Now there are attempts to undermine the law.
Over the last five decades efforts to clean up the environment and prevent further damage happened because a bipartisan majority of lawmakers understood that they must protect the air, water and soil, and our health, or they will be replaced. This year we can’t gather physically but the public demands have not changed: reduce pollution, make the polluters pay for the cleanup of their messes, reduce the carbon released into the atmosphere. Happy Earth Day. Happy protest.