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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Earth Day at 38

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood reflects on how things have changed since the first Earth Day and what might brighten the future.


CURWOOD: Today, thirty-eight years after the massive demonstrations of the first Earth Day, things have never been as bad for the environment.

World population has ballooned from less than three billion to over six billion, and it’s still rising, along with greenhouse gas levels that are on course to ignite climate catastrophe. Species continue to disappear, and just recently we heard about some salmon of the Pacific Northwest apparently going the way of the buffalo, passenger pigeon and dodo. If that’s not enough bad news, government researchers are now telling us that a chemical widely used in plastic water and baby bottles called Bisphenol A might be harmful to children’s brains and reproductive organs.


And as the environment gets poorer, so do people.

Some folks made a lot of money in the tech and real estate booms, but as each bubble has popped, as a whole we’ve slipped further behind. Today’s credit crunch, the weak American dollar and soaring gas prices show the tightening that’s been going on. I only have to look at my own life to get a handle.

Just before Earth Day 1970 I was earning my way through college as a junior fill-in radio engineer for CBS. That summer job paid $500 a week with overtime. Ten weeks pay covered half of my college tuition, plus a summer apartment and upkeep for a car and a motorcycle. Full time would have been $25,000 a year.

These days there is almost no way a college kid is going to pay for half of private college tuition by working a ten-week job. In fact he’s likely to move back home after graduation. So what happened? Today my summer job pay, adjusted for inflation, comes to an annual salary of $180,000. That’s more than the salary of a United States Senator.

So the middle class has been getting poorer, even as the rich are getting richer. And what does this have to do with the environment?

When people are poor there is no time for sustainability. There is no money to update or replace energy hogging homes and cars when credit cards are maxed out. And there’s no time to cook a meal of locally grown food when all the adults in a household have to work every day just to afford a fast food drive thru.

So it’s clear that when our economy is down, so is our environment. And when our environment is down, so is our economy. Dirty air, dirty water, congestion, disease and disability – not to mention the stronger storms and floods and droughts of climate disruption are all costing billions if not trillions to address.

The lesson of ecology is that everything is connected. So it’s up to us to connect those dots, to act as a community that can share and work together to find simple solutions, rather than maximize individual advantage.

This Earth Day should remind us all that we have the responsibility to turn around our environmental and economic decline. But at this crucial moment we won’t succeed without strong and visionary leadership, and as this is a democracy, those choices are up to us.

[MUSIC: : Ketil Bjonstad/Terje Rypdal “Flotation And Surroundings” from Life In Leipzig (ECM Records 2008)]

CURWOOD: In honor of earth day we leave you this week with some voices from the western part of the country.

PERSON1: Me myself I recycle, I take the cans and I put em in separate bags and, you know, that’s as much as I feel like I can do.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth’s Ashley Ahearn asked people from California to Arizona to Missouri what they’re doing to care for their patch of America.

VOX: Well, we try to grow some of our own food, and raise some of our own food with chickens and beef, and a nice vegetable garden. At home I use a portable heater, to heat only one room, you know, bed room and other than that we don’t use the heater. Well it’s easier to say than do. We have our air conditioning set at 80 in the summer we have our heat set at 65 in the winter, and our kids when they come say – “oh it’s so cold in here” in the winter and I say “put on a sweater!” – every day is Earth Day!

[MUSIC: : Ketil Bjonstad/Terje Rypdal “Flotation And Surroundings” from Life In Leipzig (ECM Records 2008)]



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