From the First Earth Day to the Climate Change Movement Today

As I’ve been working on the Earth Day Resources for congregations to plan actions around the 40th anniversary of Earth Day this year, I’ve been reminded of the history of Earth Day and the environmental movement in the US. The movement’s start in the late 1960s, early 1970s led to the creation of the first Earth Day, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Scientists warned that the pollution in the water was killing the lakes and streams; the Cuyahoga River even caught on fire. Air pollution was seriously degrading the environment. Both were impacting public health. But if I have learned anything from that movement, it was the amazing commitment of everyday people all over the country that demanded environmental improvements and made them happen.

One year after that first Earth Day, William D. Ruckelshaus reflected:

“We came to realize the human dimensions of antiseptic statistics.

We came to realize that the more than 1400 pounds of air pollution per person which rides the wind and rain across this continent is a hazard to health and life and the human spirit.

We came to realize that more than 50 trillion gallons of hot water, millions of tons of organic and chemical pollutants, enormous amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, and most of all, sewage every year are spoiling rivers once celebrated in our art and literature and history. The Hudson and the Potomac, the Missouri and the Monongehela, the Snake and the Androscoggin – all rivers rich in history – are today rivers rich in industrial and municipal wastes.

We came to realize that the more than 7 million automobiles, 20 million tons of paper, 48 billion cans and 26 billion bottles a year which litter our landscape means that almost nowhere on this continent can man escape the impact he has had on nature.

We came to realize too that we were not alone in our disregard for the delicate balance of life.”

Now is that time for climate change.

In December 2009, the EPA announced an endangerment finding, allowing EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. On January 21st, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced a disapproval resolution, which is expected to be brought to the Senate floor sometime this month. If passed, it would block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases and dirty coal, and furthering US contributions to the environmental injustices that contribute to climate change. Supporting the Clean Air Act is the best way we already have under current law to limit the environmental justice impacts of climate change and to help our country shift to a clean energy economy. This is, without a doubt, the way of the future. Please contact your Senators and tell them to support the Clean Air Act.

This is only the first step. Together, we can, and must, work towards a world where the environment is healthy for all who live there. The people who receive the least of society’s benefits and have the least power to affect changes are the ones who feel the environmental impacts first and most severely. Climate change is already being witnessed by people who work closely with the land. Together, we must love urgently and work towards climate justice.

What food choices can Unitarian Universalists make to build a planet that is both sustainable and just?

If you walk into an average supermarket these days, you’ll find thousands of choices of things to eat. Some things may be grown or produced in low-impact ways at a nearby farm, but chances are that many items for sale contain ingredients whose production has negatively impacted the Earth and her people. As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to living in ways that respect the inherent worth and dignity of all people as well as the interdependent web of life of which we are a part. With so many choices, how can we find ways to eat ethically?

Fortunately, people all over the United States are thinking about just this right now. Several best-selling books have been written about authors’ deliberations about what to eat, and UU congregations have been engaging in the current Congregational Study/Action Issue, “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice.” For the 40th anniversary of Earth Day this year, the UU Ministry For Earth (UUMFE) is asking members of all congregations to think about what they eat and what food choices are available to those in their communities. While Earth Day isn’t until Thursday, April 22nd, resources for planning your Earth Day events are already available on the UUMFE website to help you plan both worship and social justice projects. Check them out!

350, UUMFE, and Bill McKibben

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of joining the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth (UUMFE) for their board meeting in Vermont. Amidst the natural beauty of the late summer forests and farmland, I learned more about how UUMFE is fulfilling its mission of “[providing] Unitarian Universalists and their congregations with organized ways to connect energy, ideas, and information about how their lives relate to the living Earth, environmental justice, and future generations.” They’re a passionate group, working hard to provide resources to engage UUs in this important work. Check out the UUMFE website and sign up for their eNews to find resources for engaging yourself and your congregation in environmental issues and to learn more about what other UUs are doing.

I was delighted to have some special guests join us for dinner on Friday night, including Bill McKibben, the co-founder and director of the campaign to demand strong international climate policy in Copenhagen. Leading climate scientists declare that 350 parts per million (ppm) is the highest level of CO2 considered “safe” for sustaining human civilization on Earth. We are already at 390ppm and rising, illustrating the necessity of immediate climate action.

Despite this urgency, Bill McKibben’s message for us was not one of despair. Small changes like switching to energy-efficient light bulbs are great, but they are not enough. On October 24th, people in over 100 nations all over the world are planning to send a clear message to their governments of the need to commit to diminishing CO2levels to 350. Churches all over will be ringing their bells 350 times, sending the message to all within hearing distance. A farmer in the Cameroon has already worked with his neighbors to plant 350 trees, in solidarity of this movement. We need to work together if we want to make effective change. As people of faith, and guided by the 2006 Unitarian Universalist Statement of Conscience on the threat of Global Warming/Climate Change, we need to put our faith into action.

Tell UUMFE what you’re doing for the International Day of Climate Action here, look for ideas of something to do here , or find an existing event near you here.