From the vantage point of being from the Baby Boom Generation, I remember well the first Earth Day in April 1970. Organized by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day gave voice to a profound collective anxiety felt by the millions of Americans. We were disillusioned by the clash of what was supposed to be the embodiment of the American Dream as it crashed on the polluted shores of reality.
At the time, our nation was embroiled in a deeply unpopular war in Southeast Asia that had revealed the ugly side of American Colonialism abroad and the devastating social inequalities back at home. Still reeling from the two recent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the evening news was a parade of disaster, made all the more potent by the invention of color television. The carnage of Vietnam and environmental disasters such the Santa Barbara Oil Spill entered our living rooms on a nightly basis. This clashed with the otherworldly accomplishments of technology as the footage of astronauts walking on the moon in July of 1969 also flickered across the screen.
It was a melancholy time for my parents as well. Both were first-generation college educated children of immigrants wrestling with the sobering reality of an America fractured by conflict.. My dad, who was serving a career in the military, was wounded in the Second World War, but felt his work as a combat medic was part of his duty as an American. During the spring of 1970, he was preparing for his deployment to Vietnam with a heavy and conflicted heart. My mother, who served as a special needs teacher at a school in the Native American community of Mashpee, saw her students conscripted and shipped off to war without the most basic idea of what they were about to face.
I grew up on Cape Cod with a close tie to the land and a faith in nature, as all around me, the world of people seemed to be quite uncertain and not worthy of trust. With as many as six pet dogs, about half of which slept in bed with me on any given night, I formed deep attachments to the green woods and sand dunes of our local ecosystem. The twisted and stunted scrub pines of coastal New England, with their branches withered on their windward side, gave testimony to the harsh nature of our Cape Cod winters and the fierce resilience of those trees. It sparked a love and respect for nature that informed my vocation as an ecologist and continues to nourish my hunger for truth. Earth Day has always been a day or renewal and reflection, reminding me of the debt we owe to nature and the services she provides.
As Earth Day 2015 arrives, we are still confronted with profound challenges that once again juxtapose the clash of culture, equity and consumption as it did back in 1970. We are reminded that Earth is our home and vulnerable to the terrific forces unleashed by humans and their technologies. In light of what we have collectively learned about climate change in a world with 7 billion people, the choices we make about our relationship to the earth take on a renewed urgency.
The earth is bountiful, but finite. Our global population is becoming overwhelmingly urban, where the disconnect between resources and their consumption is often opaque to the end user, further blurring the crisis at hand. In our own lives, considerations of our resource consumption range from where we live in relationship to our work, what kinds of food will we eat, how long do we plan to live, how many children will we bring into the world, how many domestic pets will we shelter and how will we address the inequity of resources among peoples. These questions intertwine with our ethical frames and deeply held values. In fact, most of the challenges we face have similar characteristics and defy simple solutions. In Southern California, we face ever-increasing demands for water that burden our natural and built infrastructure. The balance of consumption among industry interests, agriculture and personal uses stretch the boundaries of both the physical and social ecosystems.
Only through considered efforts to understand the problems, engage the full range of stakeholders and embolden equity as a core characteristic of healthy human ecosystems can we possibly make the earth resilient and sustainable. I believe there is good news in all of this. Human institutions are themselves resilient as has been demonstrated throughout history. The democratization of knowledge, made possible by the digital revolution, has made the portability of ideas a given. My hope is that institutions such at the Center for Urban Resilience and the thousands of like-minded collections of ecological entrepreneurs can nurture and facilitate the tools of transformation so that generations of young people can also fall in love with the natural world around them and grow to be stewards of this Great Green Earth.
Happy Earth Day indeed!
About the Author: Dr. Eric Strauss serves as President’s Professor of Biology at Loyola Marymount University and Executive Director of CURes. With collaborative research specialties in animal behavior, endangered species management, urban ecosystems and science education, Eric has extended the model for faculty scholarship by co-founding the Urban Ecology Institute in Boston while he served as a faculty member at Boston College and CURes in LA, both of which provide educational, research and restoration programs to underserved neighborhoods and their residents. In addition, Dr. Strauss is the Founding Editor of a web-based peer-reviewed journal, Cities and the Environment, which is funded in part by the USDA Forest Service. His research includes collaborative long-term studies of coyotes, White tailed deer, crows, turtles and other vertebrates, with a specialty in understanding wildlife in urban areas and the appropriate management responses to wildlife problems and zoonotic disease. His work also includes investigating the role of green space and urban forests in supporting of healthy neighborhoods and how those features can be used to improve science education and restorative justice. He has co-written multi-media textbooks in biology and urban ecology as well as hosting multiple video series on the life sciences and ecology. Dr. Strauss received his BS in Mass Communication from Emerson College and Ph.D. in Biology from Tufts University in 1990. – See more at: http://cures.lmu.edu/blog/directors-blog-world-using-much-cement/#sthash.o7fhPKI7.dpuf