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Traveling through Space,
 from Earth Day 1 to Earth Day 42

Bill Meredith

Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.
~Cree Indian Proverb

(May, 2012) I have reached the age of increasing forgetfulness, lapses of concentration and inability to multi-task; the only thing that keeps me from wandering off down Lincoln Avenue in pajamas and slippers is my adherence to routine. That routine begins each morning by sitting at the breakfast table and pretending to read the paper while I am actually making a list of the birds that visit our feeder. Breakfast consumed in this manner takes at least an hour. I then take the local paper to my desk, where I record the previous day’s temperature and rainfall on graphs in my computer, and update my monthly bird list. My wife, who has never seen much practical benefit in such activities, refers to them as "number-crunching." Actually, I don’t know enough mathematics to really crunch numbers, but I have to admit that I enjoy nudging them around a bit. And it sometimes leads to unexpected ideas.

A couple of months ago, for reasons I no longer remember, I needed to know the velocity at which the earth travels in its orbit around the sun, so I went to the Internet and found it to be approximately 66,000 miles per hour. Since I often cannot remember the names of people I have known for years, I expected to forget that number promptly, but somehow it hid in an unlit corner of my brain. It resurfaced yesterday when I was sitting on the front porch. My wife asked me why I was sitting there when there was so much work waiting to be done, and I replied that I was tired. She asked how I could be tired when I hadn’t been doing anything. I started trying to think of an answer she might believe, and a light suddenly came on in my head. It wasn’t a blinding flash of light like Einstein or Newton would have experienced… more like a candle, or maybe a small flashlight… but the words simply popped out of my mouth that I was tired because I had been going 66,000 miles per hour all day.

She didn’t reply… at least, not verbally; she simply shook her head with the expression that says another screw has come loose from the rocker, and went back in the house. But the number stayed with me, so I got a pencil and started figuring. 66,000 mph x 24 hours per day x 365 days per year = more than 578 million miles in one trip around the sun. Multiplying that by the number of trips completed, I realized that in another few weeks my odometer will turn over 45.7 billion miles. No wonder I was tired. Parts are wearing out; it is harder to start the engine, the chassis is starting to emit creaks and other strange noises, and there are dents and rust spots on the fenders. I do the best I can to schedule regular tune-ups and maintenance, but it grows harder to find parts for my model year. It is anybody’s guess whether my wife will decide to trade me in for a newer model before I simply collapse into a heap of rust and sawdust, like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ wonderful one-hoss shay.

That was a sobering thought, and it was still in my mind on April 22, which was the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day. The event seemed to come and go without attracting much notice. There were speeches given here and there, a few visits to natural areas, and programs at some schools and churches, but headlines and demonstrations like we had on the original Earth Day were missing. The April 22 issue of the Frederick Post did have a nice article about efforts to clean up the Monocacy River, but I scanned the Washington Post without finding a single article about Earth Day. If there was one, it must have been on a back page among the want ads and obituaries.

The original ideas behind Earth Day began to develop around 1960, with the election of President Kennedy. The Space Program had captured the imagination of the public, young and old, with its photos of our shining, blue planet suspended in the black void of space, and the Peace Corps had made young people realize idealism could lead to productive action. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, made the public aware of impending ecological problems, and this awareness was extended by writers like Barry Commoner and Paul Ehrlich. The Civil Rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War had energized and united disparate groups of people and made them aware of the power of non-violent public demonstrations and protests, but the Watts riots, Kent State, and the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King reminded everyone that there is a dark side to protest movements. So the environmental movement was born in a decade of conflicting and polarizing events.

Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin conceived the idea for the first Earth Day, and it was held in 1970. Programs to increase public awareness of environmental problems were held at colleges all over the country, and at Mount St. Mary’s I was one of the speakers. At that time I had made 37 trips around the sun, so for an audience who believed "you can’t trust anyone over 30" I was a questionable choice, but I was still na've enough to believe that facts and logic carried weight in an argument. I explained population growth by starting with the basic premise that growth rate is the difference between birth rate and death rate, and used census data to show how the birth rate on a world-wide scale was remaining constant while the death rate was decreasing because of modern medical successes. I then reviewed the classical ideas of Thomas Malthus, who predicted in 1799 that this would lead to overpopulation and ecological collapse. My opponent in the debate was a young economics professor who (rather cavalierly, in my opinion) announced that the population problem did not exist, and that everyone knew that Malthus had been proven wrong. He asserted that the "Green Revolution," which occurred in 1968 by the introduction of new genetic strains of hybrid wheat, was feeding the growing population well, and there was nothing to fear from the disaster Malthus had predicted. No scores were recorded and no judgments were pronounced that evening, but I came away feeling that I had lost the debate.

The earth and I have gone around the sun 42 times since then, and both of us are the worse for wear. The debate started that evening is still going on, and I still represent the losing side. After 42 years, we have had some successes… the ozone hole is getting smaller, and I saw an American Eagle in the wild this week. But although the environment is in far worse shape, the headlines on this Earth Day were all about economics and politics. The "Cree Indian proverb" quoted above was probably made up by someone living in the 20th Century, because the original Crees didn’t have money, but it still has truth in it. My grandchildren will judge who won that debate.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith