Earth Day 2009

When Earth Day began, few people had heard of Chernobyl or Bhopal. Instead of cell phones, we had a cold war. Nelson Mandela was in a South African prison, for there was apartheid not wi-fi, or even many personal computers. The Berlin Wall was not yet down, the Clean Air Act was not yet law. On the shores of a Great Lake, the Cuyahoga River had somehow caught fire, such was the concentration of oil, chemicals and other oozing environmental hazards there.

Yet concern for our planet was spreading. The first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, saw an estimated twenty million people participate, an astonishing show of grassroots concern. People used the day to draw attention to concerns ranging from oil spills to polluting factories, raw sewage to toxic dumps, pesticides to endangered species. Twenty years later Earth Day focussed attention on recycling efforts, and since then the day has been a way to raise awareness of global warming and the need for clean energy and sustainable living.

In that time on the Vineyard, Islanders have built on the conservation message heralded by Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation founder and Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough, with the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and environmental protections upheld by towns and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Fishermen here are at the forefront of aquaculture innovation, and eating local organic food is a common aspiration here for producers and consumers.

And each Earth Day, Islanders turn out in numbers, as we should, to clean up the beaches in a tradition kept by the Vineyard Conservation Society.

Yet on the Island, as elsewhere, the pressures of development threaten our environmental balance every day of the year. The gap between the rich and poor has widened, and the environmental, political and economic challenges that presents have grown more complex. Air and car travel have increased multifold, greatly contributing to our carbon emissions. The Vineyard’s water quality is at risk, while the Massachusetts Estuaries Study results founder in a political swamp and traditional shellfishing grounds become fouled to the point of closure.

Simple, streamlined curbside recycling for Island residents is far from universally available; where it does exist, the size of bins provided hardly reflects the quantity of modern consumption, and the issue is not a priority. Generating clean energy is on many people’s minds, as multiplying wind turbines and regulations attest, though a concerted plan that organizes renewable power here for the common good seems elusive. And consumption does not abate.

Nearly forty years since Earth Day began, it is time to renew our commitment to work together to make bold advances for the planet on which we travel. This Wednesday, consider what you can do for the next 364 days to save the Earth, and specifically to sustain the Island. Consider it while you walk on your favorite beach, cleaning up.