It’s been almost a half-century since newly minted leaders of the U.S. environmental movement called on Americans to rise and be counted as defenders of the planet and its increasingly imperiled ecosystems.
For the first Earth Day — April 22, 1970 — organizers wanted to take mainstream what had been an emerging awareness of the planet’s fragility, a call to action launched in the decade that had just ended.
The risks were abundant: pesticides, air pollution, oil spills, toxic dumps, overpopulation and depletion of land and water resources.
Pioneering images from the U.S. space program at that time revealed Earth as the finite world it remains to this day — small and glowing in a vast universe. Early Earth Day sponsors saw “a grave crisis” on the horizon, one that demanded urgency, commitment and action by all inhabitants.
“Are we able to meet the challenge? Yes. We have the technology and the resources,” Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin, declared on that first day of mass reflection. “Are we willing? That is the unanswered question.”
His query still hangs in the air. Sustained campaigns to clean up our air and waters have seen success in the U.S., along with efforts to protect some endangered species and special places. Innovation, behavioral changes and a shared recognition of the risks to the planet all have helped.
But threats to the environment are more global than ever: Climate change and sea-level rise, mass extinctions, acidification and pollution of our oceans, disappearing bees. It’s enough to bring despair to the sunniest among us.
So The Press Democrat sought inspiration and encouragement from a few of the expert resources Sonoma County has in abundance.
Our planet, they say, can never return to what it was before the onset of the industrial era and the change it unleashed worldwide. But there is reason to hold onto hope and take heart as we confront the challenges ahead — reshaping our perspectives, banding together in collective action that conserves resources and restores the environment, and making individual choices that lesson our impact and uphold our responsibility for its health.
“If we think somehow this is going to happen without sacrifice, that’s not accurate,” said Tessa Hill, professor of earth and planetary sciences at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. “There are fundamental things about the way we live today that are not sustainable.”
Dr. Tessa Hill, 40 Sebastopol
Professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences, UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory; studies climate change impacts on marine ecosystems, focusing on ocean acidification and hypoxia
Hill has two children, evidence, she says, that she still has faith in a bright future for the human race, provided people are ready to commit to change.
For two decades, she has specialized in the study of climate change and its frightening ramifications for marine life. But Hill is hopeful, especially after seeing how Sonoma County residents drew together during and after the October wildfires — a lesson “relevant to how we confront climate change and environmental change.”
Still, she cautions that the future will look different from our present and past — that we should not be confused about the capacity of the planet to recover from harm. “What we imagine resiliency to mean is that things can bounce back and go back the way they were,” she said.