My Turn: Earth Day — 50 years later

Earth Day 2020. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the world recognizing and celebrating the Earth and all she provides for our daily needs. The Earth forms the foundation of life and is responsible for the air we breathe, the water we drink, our food and fiber, wood and metal, fire, protection from the sun’s radiation, and much more that come to us daily seemingly without cost or deep awareness. Today, the Earth has 7.8 billion people who live and receive their daily food and resources from a relatively small slice of Earth.

Seventy-one percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. The oceans hold about 96.5% of all water, the rest residing in ice, rivers and lakes. Yet only 2.5% of that water is fresh. Even then, just 1% of our fresh water is accessible. Seventy percent of that water goes to irrigating our food, 22% to industry, and only 8% goes to all domestic use. Water is the new gold, as countries around the world privatize their water systems selling community water rights to world water corporations concerned about the support of their shareholders.

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When we look at the amount of land that exists to live on and grow our food it is relatively small. If approximately 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, and 30% land, is all of that land usable? As it turns out, 3/4 of that 30% is not available for living or growing due to mountains, ice, swamps, or land that is too cold, too rocky, or too wet to live on or grow food. That leaves us 1/32 of the Earth for everyone to live on and grow food and extract material resources. But not really, as only the top 4-6 inches is available for growing, the precious topsoil that we are squander everyday.

In 1970, on that first Earth Day, I was teaching my first class of sixth graders in a public school in Fountain Valley, California. We had just discovered the science of ecology and were studying the pond in the wild area next to the school. Environmental education had been part of Hawaii’s DOE “Content and Performance Standards” until the end of the 1990s when it was removed and never reinstated for reasons unknown. It seems reasonable that a solid environmental education for our keiki, preparing them for meaningful participation in the 21st Century would be as essential as language arts and mathematics.

Of course, it’s important to be able to read, balance your checkbook and pay your bills, but environmental problems are real and already here without strategies tied to actions. Developing a sustainable community food system not based on globalization, caring for our reef and marine systems, understanding island hydrology not over-pumping our fragile water lens, creating renewable energy systems for domestic use and travel, recycling and reusing waste, rethinking systems in the face of climate change, are but a few of the areas students could study using real life projects at school and at home. These essential yet unexplored areas of education are still the enduring dream of self-sufficiency and sustainability in modern Hawaii and beyond. In these days of COVID-19, these ideas are being refreshed.

The 1960s ushered in the modern environmental movement. Rachael Carson had written “Silent Spring” there were large oil spills along the California coast, burning toxic rivers in the East, radioactive and manufacturing waste dumped into the ocean and rivers, air and water pollution in the cities, overpopulation and questions about the planets “carrying capacity,” industrial farming, and species habitat loss increasing at alarming rates.

The 1970s brought us fruits from the 60s activism and Congress passed the Clean Air Act 1970, the National Environmental Policy (NEPA) and the Council of Environmental Quality 1970, the Marine Protection Research and Sanctuaries’ Act 1972, the Endangered Species Act 1973, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (governed the disposal of solid and hazardous waste) 1976, The Clean Water Act 1977, and the Superfund Act 1980. That legislation encompassed the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, and Carter. These 2 decades were full of hope and the knowledge that finally something was being done for the Earth and her people.

But by 1980, the corporations had had enough of rules and laws that hampered business. Ronald Reagan was elected, and from then on, it became a fight every year to keep the protections that had been instituted. The Trump Administration however, has worked hard to roll back both environmental protections and the research and work of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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Some say that the rise of pandemics is due to an imbalance of the Earth’s systems. One thing seems certain. This is the perfect time to act. We have new opportunities before us. If we act to protect the precious and fragile environmental resources of Hawaii, and provide meaningful education for our youth, we not only protecting all our economic drivers, but we assuring that our children and their children will thrive.

Nancy Redfeather is a resident of Honalo.