Archive for April, 2012

Children were given free t-shirts at a 2011 Earth Day event sponsored by Shell Oil at UTPA.

By Stefanie Herweck

Every year more Texas communities add an Earth Day festival to their calendar.  But among the presentations on household energy efficiency, the wildlife on display, the recycled fashion shows, homemade birdfeeders, and festival food, something critical has been lost: the political action of the original Earth Day.

Earth Day began as a serious bid to bring environmental issues to our politicians’ attention.  In 1970 Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson and Republican Representative Paul McCloskey helped create the day as a way to counter the fact that, “The state of our environment was simply a non-issue in the politics of the country.”  

The first Earth Day events were not festivals, but grassroots protests.  After years of fighting in isolation, and with little national attention, against polluting factories in their communities, against power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, oil spills, pesticides, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife, 20 million Americans banded together on April 22, 1970 to make their voices heard. 

This movement didn’t stop when people left the streets.  Capitalizing on the networks created by the protests, student organizers released a “Dirty Dozen” list of U.S. House members whose voting records ran counter to the goals of protecting and preserving our nation’s natural resources.  When the next election cycle rolled around, thousands turned out to educate voters about the “Dirty Dozen.”  Two of the representatives lost their primaries.  Five more were defeated in their re-election bids. 

The environment quickly became an important national issue in the eyes of Congress.  As a result, in 1970 Congress amended and strengthened the Clean Air Act.  The Environmental Protection Agency was born in December of that year, and the National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law soon afterward.  The Marine Mammals Protection Act was passed in 1972, along with legislation which came to be known as the Clean Water Act.  In 1973 Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.

These were historic advances, but in the intervening years Earth Day has moved away from propelling legislation and holding politicians accountable, and has become a superficial celebration.  We nostalgically don our tie-dye t-shirts and visit festivals, complete with corporate sponsors and fast food vendors, while our country’s commitment to environmental protection erodes away.

The first Earth Day featured teach-ins to educate people, not just about interesting wildlife and how to be a “green” consumer, but about how industrial practices and the extraction and use of fossil fuels were destroying ecosystems and threatening human health. 

In the new millennium, Earth Day is failing to teach these things.  Even as Earth Day festivities have spread, public understanding about issues such as climate change has decreased.  A recent Gallup poll shows a decline in the percentage of people who are concerned about global warming, down to 55 percent this year from a high 72 percent in 2000.

Earth Day has also lost its original political edge.  Under the influence of industry lobbyists, and with campaign coffers filled with money from polluters, the environment has become once again a “non-issue” for our politicians.  They are working for polluters instead of for the people and the environment that we depend on. 

Our Texas Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison are doing their part for the fossil fuel industry by consistently supporting legislation that goes against science and blocks the EPA from regulating pollution.  They also support extremist cuts proposed by the Ryan budget that would leave us without any funds whatsoever to protect our environment.   

At the state level, Governor Perry and his appointed commissioners at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) are waging a legal war on the EPA, insisting that Texas’ pro-polluter, anti-community regulatory process is better for business than a science-based process that protects human health.

Earth Day has been successful at getting people to stop and think about our environment.  But if we truly want to preserve our planet, its diversity of life, and ourselves, we need to educate ourselves about the environmental threats we’re facing and use concrete political actions to address those problems.

What can you do to recapture the political activism of the original Earth Day?  Hold policymakers accountable, by keeping up with the impacts their proposed policies will have on the environment and the health of our communities and natural areas.  Call or write Senators Cornyn and Hutchison and tell them to support the EPA in their mission to protect public health and the environment.  Contact your state elected officials and let them know that Texans deserve a voice when it comes to allowing polluters into our communities.  If your elected officials are consistently voting against the environment or champion destructive, pro-pollution policies, work to get them voted out of office.

Keep tabs on corporations and educate yourself about their practices.  When a corporation proposes a development in your community, find out everything you can about the plan.  If you have concerns take them to your elected officials and regulatory agencies. 

Your actions will have greater impact when you work with others who share your goals.  Joining a national environmental organization will allow you to be a part of a political force to turn the tide and make the environment a political issue once more.  Become active in a local group or simply come together with people in your community around local projects like protecting a park, cleaning up a body of water, preserving native habitat, or lobbying city officials to shift to renewable energy, establish bike lanes, and plant trees.

When the Earth Day festivals are over, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work to protect our environment.  Life literally depends on it.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Rio Grande Guardian in April 2011. 


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From the Protecting What We Love Exhibit

Protecting What We Love is an exhibit of photo posters that tells the story of the environment in Texas in 2012.  The show includes the breathtaking work of some of Texas’ finest nature photographers — Charles Kruvand, Susan Heller, Adrian Van Dellen, and Deana Newcomb.
Alongside these gorgeous art pieces of the natural resources that we cherish are the documentary evidence of brave advocates exposing the dark side of the dream — the brave Don Young and Sharon Wilson with their photos of gas fracking and drilling in the Barnet Shale, the champion coal fighter Paul Rolke with his photos from Texas coal country; and the stalwart friend Hilton Kelley’s poignant images of children living and playing near the toxic fence lines of Port Arthur’s refineries and chemical plants.

Flyer for the exhibit

The solutions are here, too — enlightened and effective water conservation programs, solar panels flowering on rooftops across the state, green buildings for energy efficiency, an electric car and other smart transportation solutions to reduce pollution and clean up Texas.  There’s even a wonderful photo of our own cyclists out in force at UTPA to promote a clean, sustainable Rio Grande Valley. The Protecting What We Love exhibit opening is timed to coincide with the Edinburg Earth Day and Arbor Day on Saturday from 9 am to 1 pm.  The exhibit will be on display through this Friday, April 20.  Then the exhibit moves to the Brownsville Main Library April 23-April 29 and the Southmost Branch April 30-May 5.  Flyer for Brownsville here.

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