Wednesday, September 27, 2023

OPINION: Earth Day will be celebrated Saturday

by EVAN KOCH/More Perfect Union
| April 19, 2023 1:00 AM

Kootenai County will celebrate Earth Day this coming Saturday. A full day of ecology-centered events will take place outside the Coeur d’Alene Public Library. For details visit

This annual event reminds us of the vital need to be good stewards over this earth. There is no Planet B.

The official, widespread celebration of Earth Day began 53 years ago. Pollution had become rampant during the economic boom that followed World War II. Smog inundated Los Angeles and oil formed tar balls that floated onto previously pristine beaches near California’s offshore wells. Sewage bubbled up in harbors. And the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland actually caught fire due to industrial waste contamination.

At that time, environmental pollution was simply considered the “price of progress.” It was an acceptable bi-product of economic prosperity. Few people thought of pollution as a moral, political, or existential problem.

But then a disaster struck, an oil spill off the coast of California.

In the following days, Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin) visited California and witnessed the damage. He saw first-hand the blackened sand and the oil-covered birds and sea lions.

Sen. Nelson perceived correctly that such disasters threaten the health of the world in which we live. To bring awareness to the issue, he started “teach-ins.” Sen. Nelson launched a day of awareness on college campuses in the spring of 1970.

Earth Day was officially born.

Some 20 million people, mostly college students, showed up for marches, speeches and protests at thousands of campuses across the country.

Sen. Nelson correctly asserted that by exposing Americans to a rational discussion of facts about our environment, he could unite us in an effort to clean things up. And Republicans joined in, agreeing that the need for a clean environment had to be addressed.

The demonstrators were the same ones who had opposed President Richard Nixon’s Vietnam era wartime policies. But this time Nixon paid attention. He told the press, “Today’s event should be the beginning of a new and sustained public commitment to the environment.”

Nixon then created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order, and he signed bipartisan bills known as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Before long, Earth Day grew so popular that Congress actually closed down for the day, because two-thirds of its members were attending Earth Day events.

Americans appreciated that, by working together, they had the power to change things. Today the Cuyahoga River is restored to health, and the populations of some (not all) endangered species have been restored as well. An entire new academic discipline and an infrastructure of careers in ecological restoration, preservation and sustainability has been created.

We still have a long way to go, especially in less affluent parts of our country. But one fact remains. The mass movement of people who Sen. Nelson inspired made common stewardship possible. Now we are faced with a new challenge and global climate change is understood to be a reality that must be addressed.

Still for some, environmental issues seem like a distant reality for our Lake Coeur d'Alene watershed. However, we only need to look in our backyard to see the effects of our own neglect. Clean safe water is the cornerstone of our economic security and we must all come together to address the threats it faces. We have damaging algae in our waterways, declining wildlife in our forests and prairies, and air pollution that needs our attention now.

And so we have a shared obligation to educate ourselves to ecological knowledge and to commit ourselves to the policies and the acts that will ensure our community thrives for generations to come.

That’s one fine way we can create a safe and prosperous world for our kids and grandkids.

• • •

Evan Koch is chairman of the Kootenai County Democrats.

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