The spirit of Earth Day

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Last Friday, my 4-year-old daughter came home from preschool proudly showing off a tiny model Earth made out of green and blue clay that hung from a piece of yarn around her neck. I’m proud of her school for marking Earth Day.

In 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson organized a nationwide demonstration against unchecked pollution of lands, skies and water sources. As a result of the first Earth Day demonstrations, Congress authorized the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency that same year and later passed legislation for clean air, safe drinking water and protection of endangered species. Sen. Nelson is rightly remembered in history for his leadership.

But Jack Lewis, former Assistant Editor of the EPA Journal, credits grassroots volunteers as “the driving force not only behind Earth Day, but also behind many smaller and less publicized environmental reforms in the 1960s.” In the same essay, “The Spirit of the First Earth Day,” Lewis also observed an evolution of language. The early stages of activism were characterized by the term “conservation,” which emphasized setting aside land and bodies of water for parks and sanctuaries. By the end of the decade, “environment” was the preferred term because it related to where people lived, worked and played. Americans turned out by the millions on that first Earth Day because they understood the “environmental issues” directly impacted their lives.

Last Friday, millions more people gathered in rallies and demonstrations around the world. These events are still driven by countless grassroots volunteers. Recent years have also shifted the way we talk about the environmental crisis of our time — instead of “global warming,” we now reference “climate change.” The earth’s temperatures are steadily rising. But “warm” has positive connotations in the English language: warm hearts, warm welcome, warm regards. We warm up to ideas and people. Loved ones share warm and fuzzy feelings.

But no one likes change! Change is unsettling and calls for our attention.

As a writer, I know that the choice of words makes a difference. As a pastor, I know that actions and decisions are often a matter of the heart not simply the head. I take to heart knowing that Lewis quoted participants describing “the spirit of the first Earth Day” as “magical and catalytical,” “a charmed event,” and “a joyous occasion.”

The impact of climate change is dire and calls for urgent action on a global scale. Governments must be involved in order to shift economies from fossil fuels and prevent the destruction of rain forests. We need prominent leaders in positions of power to act, swiftly and decisively.

We all need to do our part.

On Earth Day, my sons and I collected trash that had been discarded in the grass along the main road through our neighborhood. With her Earth necklace bouncing happily against her chest, my daughter later helped her older brother water cucumber seeds he had planted in a small pot. We talked about how we helped the environment. My daughter smiled. “This is also a lot of fun!”

As my friend and mentor Brian Doyle once wrote, “You must trust that you being the best possible you matters.” That’s the spirit we need every day.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”

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