With the worldwide attention on the coronavirus pandemic, something that is important has been virtually ignored: Earth Day, and its celebration today — especially in light of its 50th anniversary this year.
Earth Day should have served as a symbolic conceptual umbrella under which a cluster of major policy issues would be addressed — globalization, which is facilitating the mass movement of people, technology and germs; climate change, which is accelerating, leading to the disruption of populations and the shifting of agricultural patterns and health care practices; water policy disputes over quality and quantity, that have the potential for initiating international warfare; and energy economic battles between advocates of fossil fuels and advocates of clean renewable energy resources.
Earth Day emerged out of an awareness in the late 1960s of the serious damage done in the preceding 100 years of industrial “progress” without any attention to environmental impacts — rivers used as waste disposal receptacles for chemicals that caught on fire; towns and large residential areas, like Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York and Times Beach, Missouri that had to be abandoned due to contamination from toxic waste disposal. The discovery of a multitude of sites of water and air pollution forced national attention. Earth Day was first officially celebrated in 1970.
Rachel Carson’s best-selling book, “Silent Spring,” captured the new and emerging sensitivity to environmental degradation. In New Jersey, a particularly heightened awareness occurred because of its history, until the 1950s, as the center of the chemical and petrochemical industries at a time when people were unaware of the dangers of unregulated random disposal of toxic waste. Earth Day symbolized a national recognition of such folly.
There is now a need for a recommitment to countering the irresponsibility of ignoring such challenges as globalization, climate change, pandemics, water availability and clean energy. These are separate but clearly related issues, demanding and deserving of intensive and informed attention and action. The question is, how to get it.
The answer in a democracy is with clear, fact-based, courageous leadership that is willing to take on this difficult task of informing citizens of their available options in forming public policy that is in the public interest. Not always an easy job since it may entail taking on the status quo. And not for the faint-hearted.
An essential component is getting citizens engaged and informed. Engaged, because this is the way our system is supposed to work, with participatory democracy. The system does not work unless we all work at making it work. Informed, because you can’t fix a problem if you don’t understand the problem. Worse yet is if you don’t even know there is a problem.
The pandemic has focused our attention on public policy like nothing else in my lifetime, short of war. That energy should be harnessed into a movement for major policy changes in a way that movements were previously formed to advance civil rights, women’s rights, and protection of the environment. Citizens are ready, but from where will the leaders come? — Former Gov. Jim Florio
How NJ Department of Environmental Protection was born on first Earth Day
On May 14, 2013, former Gov. Tom Kean took part in a discussion on his administration’s environmental policy. It was held at the Center on the American Governor, Eagleton Institute of Politics (Rutgers University). During it, he recalled the circuitous route that the idea for a state Department of Environmental Protection took from genesis to fruition — and his role in it as a state legislator and adviser to gubernatorial candidate and later governor William Cahill.
As Kean wryly noted, the foundation of the DEP on the very first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, along with being a signal day for the Garden State’s environment, was illustrative of the ways that milestones are sometimes reached in politics.