Healing Our World: Weekly Comment

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

Earth Day 2004 – Are We Learning Anything?

“Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls picked them, every one.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?”

-- Pete Seeger

"Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too."
-- Frederick Buechner

I began my Earth Day 2003 commentary at a time of great concern in the world. I said, ”While deadly pollution harms U.S. soldiers, the people, and environment of Iraq and the surrounding countries, while the Baghdad zoo has been ransacked and the animals either killed, let loose, or stolen, while innocent Iraqi children suffer from U.S. inflicted injuries, and while tens of thousands of people die from soil, air, and water poisoned with pesticides and scores of toxic chemicals, craft fairs, discussion groups, and lectures will be held. Lost is the passion and sense of urgency that heralded in the first Earth Day 33 years ago.”

I am sorry to say that there is nothing I would change in that statement as we celebrate Earth Day 2004.

tree planting

U.S. Navy families plant trees for Earth Day as part of the DEFY program. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)
I have definitely had a love-hate relationship with Earth Day. For one thing, I think that the whole idea of having one day a year to focus on creating sustainable ways to use our planet's life support systems is pretty ludicrous. I have taken it to be an opportunity to remind people of how little progress has been made in so many critical areas and how we all need to be so mindful of our relationship with the natural world.

Earth Day has become a time when the right wing corporate, industrial, and political leaders probably rejoice in the passivity of the population. Of course, there are exceptions and a few groups throughout the nation will be mindful of the significance of the day. Unfortunately, it will be too few.

The first Earth Day in 1970 saw an estimated 20 million people across the nation participating in peaceful demonstrations that called attention to our environmental dilemmas. Senator Gaylord Nelson and activist Denis Hayes organized it as a nationwide teach-in about the environment. Over 10,000 grade schools, 2,000 colleges, and 1,000 communities participated, sending a strong message to political leaders that the environment was part of everyone’s lives and needed attention.

What happened to the grand expectations we had at the first Earth Day, thirty-two years ago?

Senator Nelson said the purpose of Earth Day was "to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.”

"It was a gamble," he recalls, "but it worked." There is no gamble any longer. Earth Day is hardly controversial or threatening to anyone.


Republicans for Environmental Protection Earth Day 2001 table at the University of Notre Dame (Photo courtesy Students For Environmental Action)
Some would argue that although many people are more aware of environmental issues today than in 1970, little has been done to stem the tide of environmental destruction in a world where economic growth outweighs planetary health. If anything, the destruction is happening at a greater level than ever before. It is often less visible because industry leaders and politicians know how to keep things quieter with the help of well paid public relations firms.

The first Earth Day's message was heard and in the few years that followed, sweeping environmental legislation was enacted including the Endangered Species Act, The Federal Clean Air Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

It was a powerful time of reawakening and it appeared, for a while, that the sobering realization of our impact on the natural world might result in positive change. Species were saved, habitats protected, and development projects were stopped. In New York City, over 100,000 people attended an ecology fair in Central Park. Congress adjourned for the day and over five hundred of its members attended teach-ins at universities or made speeches about saving the environment.

On Earth Day 2004, will the President join Congress and adjourn for the day to attend teach-ins? No. In fact, the George W. Bush administration has succeeded in weakening most of the environmental rules that emerged from the awareness raised from the first Earth Day.

There will be many events across the nation on Earth Day 2004. In Shoreline, Washington, North City Elementary is hosting a school Beautification Day, in celebration of Earth Day. They will be planting, painting and cleaning the school grounds. In Seattle, invasive ivy will be removed by volunteers in Magnuson Park. In Jackson, Wyoming, there will be an afternoon of workshops, booths, kids’ activities, organic food, and live music celebrating simple and sustainable living in the Tetons.

In Union City, Tennessee, Volunteers will pick up litter on a 1-3/4 mile scenic auto drive and 1 mile of visitor center road in the Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge.

Big deal.


Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge in western Tennessee (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Since the first Earth Day 34 years ago, global population has increased by as much as it did in the last 100,000 years. And as the number of people has grown, the amount of land and resources has also expanded. The gap between the rich and the poor has also widened dramatically.

The world’s oceans are in such peril that a bipartisan government panel has recently said that Americans must get serious about saving our oceans or all will be lost. Overfishing is decimating one ocean species after another, and the catch is getting thinner and thinner.

While the lectures and conversations take place on Earth Day, in Bangladeshis, hungry people fight to get fish from polluted sewage treatment plant water.

Thirty-four years after the first Earth Day, I am feeling rather cynical. Earth Day 2004 shows no signs of being more than a day of a few beach clean-ups, educational booths, tree plantings, speeches, conversations and parades. Many festivals and fairs will be held throughout the U.S. with food, exhibits and, I am sure, many opportunities to buy products to filter our poisoned air and water.

There will be a whole variety of experiences, most press releases for Earth Day events say. Except there will be few demonstrations demanding an end to the madness sweeping across our world and few events pledging solidarity to those fighting for the cleanup of our Earth, our seas, and our skies. It should NOT be a day to sell T-shirts as fundraisers. It should be a day of wide awake engagement, a day to teach simplification, to model how to end our consumption-at-all-costs lifestyle, and to highlight the importance of establishing a deep and profound connection to the natural world, the cycles of life, and the rhythms of nature.

On Earth Day 2004, maybe more than ever before in history, we need to reflect seriously on the fact that time may really be running out for our planet's life-support systems - and for us.

How can we invite this awareness into our lives and survive? I think we can, every day.

Maybe Earth Day should be a global call to stop work, to stop driving, stop killing, to sit quietly at home, use as few resources as possible, and teach our children that the raping and plundering of the Earth in the name of economic growth has taken us to the brink of disaster.

Maybe Earth Day should be a day of national listening, listening for, as Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hahn says, for the sound of the Earth crying. If we really heard that sound, our only choice would be to act – now.


1. Visit an Earth Day website at: http://www.earthday.net/ Contact the organizers and ask them to help put the spirit back into Earth Day. They need to hear from you.

2. Calculate your ecological footprint and see just how much of the Earth you use. You will be quite surprised. Start at: http://www.lead.org/leadnet/footprint/default.htm

3. See a fact sheet on women's health and the environment at: http://www.wedo.org/monitor/health.htm

4. Find out who your Congressional representatives are and e-mail them. Tell them it is time to protect environmental legislation and for sweeping environmental changes. If you know your Zip code, you can find them at: http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.html

5. Earth Day 2004 might be a great time to get your family to watch the “Diet for a New America” video by Jon Robbins, possibly the most important 60 minutes you and your family and friends could watch. Check your local library or you can get a copy at: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6302231736/qid=955217906/sr=1-1/103-6 887997-8429402

6. Follow a broad range of environmental issues with the Earth Island Institute at: http://www.earthisland.org/home_body.cfm

7. Give an Earth Day gift to your local high school, such as a powerful 30-minute video from the Video Project called “We All Live Downstream,” available at: http://www.videoproject.org/we_all_live_downstream.html

8. Keep track of worldwide anti-war protests at: http://www.protest.net/iraq_action_digest_dec_3.html

9. Learn about the civilian death toll in Iraq from Iraq Body Count at: http://www.iraqbodycount.net/

10. For some empowering evidence of the competence and values that even teens can have, check out the website for Youth for Environmental Sanity at: http://www.yesworld.org/

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle and the author of "Healing Our World", A Journey from the Darkness Into the Light," available at: http://www.xlibris.com/HealingOurWorld.html or your local bookstore. His new book of photographs and thoughts on interconnectedness, “Of This Earth, Reflections on Connections,” is now available. Learn about it at: http://ofthisearth.org. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at: jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his website at: http://www.healingourworld.com}