Earth Day: Don't assume it's only about "flower power"

Images of flower power stickers and "radical" hippies may have been your first thought when Earth Day approached this past Wednesday. Or maybe you felt a little nostalgic and recalled drawing pictures of children hugging the earth back in elementary school. However, Earth Day organizers, and I, want to clarify this image for you. Earth Day is not simply a Hallmark holiday. It is not a variation of Mother's Day or Valentine's Day - Earth Day is a salute to awareness and education.

At its most basic, Earth Day marks the anniversary of the environmental movement in 1970. Founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, wanted to "shake up the political establishment and force this issue [environmentalism] onto the national agenda."

Recall that the '70s were a time of gas-guzzling and rising oil prices. This was also an era when smokestacks were unregulated and tainted the sky gray. Legal consequences and bad press were of little concern to big industries, since politicians were not yet sensitive to environmental regulation. Big businesses thrived without regard to externalities and consequences.

April 22, 1970 marked the beginning of change. Concerned citizens protested in the streets, parks and auditoriums all over America. About 20 million Americans demonstrated for a healthier and more sustainable environment. The Earth Day national coordinator, Denis Hayes, organized coast-to-coast rallies, involving thousands of colleges and universities to protest against the lack of political support for environmental issues and the absence of regulation on polluting industries. On this day, groups were energized against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, loss of wilderness, and the growing extinction of native flora and fauna. For the first time in history, all of these concerns were recognized as being related with the potential outcome of destroying this big blue planet. From this point in time began concerted and coordinated global efforts to save the planet and man from destroying himself with unabated poisoning of his environment.
At this point, Earth Day 2009 has passed, but the values that the commemoration evoke remain. This year, Cleveland's Earth Day Coalition organized Earthfest 2009 with focus on climate-change solutions, local and organic foods, clean transportation, green home improvement, environmental science, and environmental film screenings. The festival also offered to calculate participants' carbon footprints. None of these activities are exclusive to Earth Day; carpooling, buying organic food from your grocery store, and taking an environmental studies course can be integrated into your daily lifestyle.

Furthermore, Green City Blue Lake (GCBL), an online forum with the mission to move Northeast Ohio toward greater sustainability, took advantage of Earth Day's universal recognition by proposing changes to Northeast Ohio's transportation planning agency and the Innerbelt Bridge Project. GCBL wants the transportation planning agency to design sustainable transportation and land-use policies. GCBL proposes that the transportation planning agency should offer a plan to reduce climate change impact by setting goals for more bike lanes and racks and for more buses and trains to promote mass transportation.

The Innerbelt Bridge Project is a plan for a new $465 million, five-lane bridge, which will carry westbound traffic and be built just north of the current Innerbelt Bridge. This bridge is to be completed by 2012, but GCBL has its own two cents to contribute before project plans are finalized. Currently, the bridge design does not include bike lanes or pedestrian paths. GCBL is utilizing Earth Day attention to provoke discussion on pushing the city to consider the benefits of including bike lanes and pedestrian paths in the bridge design.

Earth Day symbolizes moving forward and provoking change. Yes, the day has passed, but the ideas and values should resonate every day. Start a discussion; send letters to our senators, congressmen, mayor, and council members. Let's get our politicians to incorporate these values in their planning and government policies. Incorporating bike lanes in new roadways should not be a struggle in 2009; it should already be in every politician's mind.

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