On the very first Earth Day, in April 1970, I was a graduate student in journalism at Stanford University. Denis Hays, the founder of Earth Day, was a fellow student. I didn’t know him, but was inspired by his work.
To help inform people about Earth Day, I dug a bucket of earth – i.e. dirt. I poured a cup or two into little plastic bags and tied a green ribbon around the top. I handed them out to my classmates, professors and colleagues at my part-time job, saying “Happy Earth Day.”
Their reactions ranged from dead silence to raucous laughter. The irony of dirt in plastic bags was not lost. I thought it was a good message, if a bit wacko. Some friends began calling me “dirtbag.” In my defense, I also started a newspaper recycling project, urging people to bring in stacks of their old papers once a week to be picked up for recycling. This was long before the days of curbside pickups, even in progressive Palo Alto.
But there was lots of excitement about Earth Day and widespread efforts to stop pollution and save the planet. The iconic photo of Earth from space resonated worldwide. Many people became active environmentalists.
I won a fellowship to the Washington Journalism Center in Washington, D.C., and soon became the environmental reporter for Congressional Quarterly magazine. I covered all the major environmental bills of the early 1970s — concerning clean water, cleaner air, strip mining, marine mammals, wilderness, clear-cutting, and other issues. Congress passed several landmark bills, and I wrote about all of them. I interviewed Bill Ruckelshaus, who was the first director of the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). My then-wife worked for Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat who had co-sponsored Earth Day with its co-founder Hays.
That was more than 50 years ago, but it seems like yesterday. Earth Day has not only survived, but has become universally celebrated. It clearly helped spur much of the progress we’ve made in raising public consciousness about environmental issues and passing vital legislation.
But as Ruckelshaus wrote in 2010: “Over the course of the past four decades, we have largely brought the point-source pollution problem under control … but the solutions we devised back in the 1970s aren’t likely to make much of a dent in the environmental problems we face today.” That’s even more true now. Climate change, ocean pollution, habitat destruction, urban runoff, pervasive chemicals and other environmental problems persist. The United States has led the way on many of these concerns, but much remains to be done.
However, many people have come to realize that top-down, big-government solutions and more legislation can only do so much. To a growing degree, it is individual actions that can make a bigger difference. So, what can you do in your own Mercer Island neighborhood and community? “Think globally, act locally,” as the old saying goes. Here are a few ideas you may not have considered:
Go out plogging: I once proposed forming a volunteer group called “Janitors Without Borders” that would go around the world tidying up. I was half-joking, but imagine the impact if people did this worldwide. Then to my delight, I discovered “plogging.” It comes from the Swedish words plocka upp (pick up) and jogga (jog). According to Wikipedia, it started in Sweden around 2016 and has spread to other countries. People jogging or walking carry bags and pick up trash and litter as they go, which adds bending, squatting and stretching to their exercise routine. About 2 million people plog daily in 100 countries, according to Wikipedia.
Leap for Green: In 2008, the city of Mercer Island began an Earth Day Fair to promote environmental activities and practices, especially among kids. It was cancelled during the pandemic, but is happening again on Saturday, April 22, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the MI Community and Event Center. Prime sponsors are Cedar Grove and the MI Community Fund. Nearly 20 groups will have information tables, including Sound Transit, Recology, Citizens Climate Lobby, Friends of Luther Burbank Park, Master Gardeners, and MI Rotary. A petting zoo, marimba band, food trucks, a bubble workshop and a sing-along will be featured, plus prizes for visiting vendor tables and getting a “passport” stamped.
Be a forest steward: The city’s parks and recreation department, in addition to regular cleanup and restoration events, has a forest steward program to teach citizens about maintaining parklands through non-native plant removal, weeding, raking, mulching, and other volunteer tasks. Those who complete the training program may then lead volunteer events with friends and neighbors. The city will provide tools, gloves, snacks and support. Next session is 4-6 p.m. April 20, and advance registration is required.
Start thinking small: A remarkable new book by my friend Todd Myers, environmental director for the Washington Policy Center, offers some innovative suggestions: “Time to Think Small – How Nimble Environmental Technologies Can Solve the Planet’s Biggest Problems.” Myers was formerly with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, National Review and The Seattle Times. He has a bachelor’s degree from Whitman College and a master’s degree from the University of Washington.
In his opening chapter, “The Future of Environmental Stewardship,” Myers writes: “Faced with the perceived enormity of environmental challenges, people feel helpless. But that need not be the case. … It’s time to think small. … The best solutions for the environment are personal.” His book describes “the people and businesses around the world who are using smartphones and personal technologies to create small environmental solutions that will leave our planet a better place. … At a moment when there is so much anxiety and pessimism about the environment, the power of the technology we have in our own hands is a source of real optimism. Our environmental problems are real, but many hands make light work, and with the opportunities created by smartphones and personal technology, they can be solved in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago. The opportunity to be an environmental hero is now literally in the palm of our hands.”
For details, read the book — after you finish plogging, that is.
John Hamer is a former Seattle Times editorial writer and columnist who has lived on Mercer Island since 1999. He walks daily and picks up litter regularly, unless his wife says “Don’t touch that!” Email email@example.com.