In the seventies, my friends and I played near a trickle of a creek in a ravine everyone called “Bloody Bones.” The water was copper-colored from what we always assumed was factory runoff. It might have been toxic, but I’m not sure.
My dad worked as a numbers cruncher for a steel mill in Weirton, West Virginia. When he came home in the evening, his dress shirt was gray from soot because he took long walks on his lunch hour.
I remember the foul odor that came from the Ohio River and how the mere suggestion of any of us swimming in it put my mom in a bad mood. At least our river wasn’t catching fire regularly, like the Cuyahoga in northeast Ohio.
I desperately wanted earth shoes, but it never happened.
These are core memories from growing up in a place and time when people were just beginning to understand that health of environment and health of families were intermingled.
The seventies were a game changer for the environment. In December 1970, President Nixon presented a plan that called for the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Earlier that same year on April 22, the first Earth Day happened, marking the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental preservation movement.
These days, while Earth Day registers on radar screens as a solid reason to have a community festival (at least in the before times), the day itself doesn’t seem to garner widespread respect. Perhaps, like Black history and women’s history – commemorated in February and March respectively – our planet should get its very own month.
But the truth is that the very first Earth Day in 1970 was historic.
Its principal founder, a junior senator from Wisconsin named Gaylord Nelson, was intrigued by the turn-out at anti-Vietnam War teach-ins on college campuses in the sixties. Nelson wondered, Could similar energy be channeled into a grassroots protest over what was happening to the environment?
Yes! Participants in communities and on colleges campuses united for one cause: saving the Earth. “More importantly,” as Nelson told interviewers later, “it brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favor of environmental reform.” The first Earth Day created a rare show of advocacy that spread from coast to coast, and perhaps most significantly, across age groups and party lines. The grassroots phenomenon
eventually led to federal legislation like the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.
So what else came of Earth Day?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, I did not get my earth shoes back in the day, but later, I bought my own Wallabees. I also bought myself enamel and sterling silver commemorative Earth Day earrings which I try to remember to wear on the twenty-second of April every year.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day last year, the world was in a pandemic-induced hibernation. Interestingly, Mother Earth was able to catch her breath for a very short time, but we all know these modest benefits from having fewer planes in the air are not economically sustainable.
Implausible as it might seem, governments and corporations around the world have to figure out a way to make sweeping changes that will help the environment. Until that time, it’s up to families like ours to do the little things. Here’s a list of simple things we have done over the years:
1. Don’t let the car idle. Turn off the car when waiting on the kids.
2. Use the cold-water setting for laundry.
3. Don’t use weed killers or fertilizer in the yard.
4. Recycle right! When items don’t belong in the curbside bin, we take them to the proper location for recycling.
5. Repurpose packaging. If we buy things in plastic bags, we rinse and reuse the bag.
6. Swear off paper products in the kitchen.
7. Pack reusable water bottles and containers in lunch boxes.
8. Buy dishwashing liquid, hand sanitizer, etc. in bulk and refill smaller reusable bottles at home.
9. Eat more locally sourced foods and a plant-based diet.
10. Say no to plastic straws and use stainless steel straws.
11. Use rechargeable batteries.
12. Engage with nonprofits and community groups that support the environment and sustainable energy options.
13. Resist consumerism and the economy of things – we love thrifting!
14. Keep an open mind about a greener economy – we have pledged not to buy another car until we can buy an electric one.
15. Choose products based on their environmental impact. My college-student daughter recently told me she’s switching from almond milk to cashew milk because less water is used to produce it.
Finally, take the lead from your kids. These days, as adults engage in heated conversations about global warming and climate change that can be fraught with political implications, our kids worry that their one-day children won’t be able to play outside. Every time I wog near the James River with my youngest child (the cashew milk drinker), I behold the wonder of the fruits of a healthier Mother Earth. If there is the slightest chance that any of the small steps my family is taking can help us save the earth, we’re in for the long haul. Please join us on the journey.