The root cause

Published: Saturday 30 April 2011

The root cause


Forty one years ago, a US senator did something unprecedented in his country's history. Helped by environmental activists from across the country, Gaylord Nelson mobilised more than 20 million people on environmental issues. On April 22, 1970, the streets in the US saw a rare political alignment. Republicans and Democrats, city people and farmers, tycoons and labour leaders raised their voice against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife.

It was not a token protest. April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, created political pressure to clean air and water, and to protect wilderness and endangered species. The US Environmental Protection Agency is a child of Earth Day. US president Richard Nixon shed his usual tepid attitude towards environmental concerns and signed a piece of legislation to protect air, water and wilderness.

But tokenism has a way of sneaking into even the most ardent efforts. By the late 1970s, the US' Woodstock generation was paying mortgages, raising children, building careers; it was too busy and distracted to put much energy into advancing environmental progress. Many became one-day environmentalists willing to abjure electricity for a few hours, recycle paper, and compost banana peels even as they bought electronic gizmos, drove fuel sucking vehicles, and built monstrous resource-consuming houses.

The US ritualised the Earth Day, while exporting its 1960’s idea of air pollution as the smell of prosperity to the developing world. April 22 is one of those days when almost everyone wants to be politically correct. Companies forget their wasteful ways and announce recycling drives. Firms that flout environmental rules showcase their social responsibility in glizy Earth Day ads. Industrial outfits that belch smoke and sludge and raze forests and suck up wetlands for business ease their environmental conscience by planting a few saplings.

While some surely gain positive feelings from participating in Earth Day celebrations, there are many people and communities whose concern for the Earth is not restricted to an hour or a day. Their lifestyles hold a lesson. For them, every day is Earth Day.

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