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THE TRASHY BLONDE
It’s nice that we have designated one day out of the year to celebrate our planet earth. Of course, Earth Day cannot be mentioned in the same breath as holidays like the Fourth of July, Mother’s Day or even Saint Patrick’s Day. But Earth Day certainly ranks higher than some other recognition days I see highlighted on my calendar, such as National Static Electricity Day which I missed in January (shocking!). But thank goodness, it’s not too late to celebrate National Hairball Day coming up this Friday!
Earth Day was born in 1970 out of a desperate attempt to publicize the need to stop the increasing pollution that is poisoning our air, water and land. Pollution is the unwanted byproduct of our explosive economy fueled by cheap petroleum-based energy. Never before have humans been able to do so much with so little effort. With the Industrial Revolutions starting in the mid 1880’s, we’ve been pushing technologies to the limit with fantastic results. As most any old-timer can tell you (and old-timers now include me), “things have changed!”
I was born in 1959 four days after Christmas. So theoretically I have memories of a few days in the 50s, I just don’t remember them. I was supposed to be born in January of 1960, but my dad, being my dad, wanted the tax credit for another kid for the current year. So he talked my Mom’s OB doc into “helping me into the world” a little earlier than planned. So, thanks Dad, for giving me the worst timed birthday ever- right between two major holidays of gift giving and partying. No one wants to have ANOTHER party in the middle of all that. And people would sometimes skimp you on your right to get gifts by saying, “Oh, that’s your Christmas AND birthday present!” And they look at you like you should be thrilled. Even at 6 years old, I could tell I was getting ripped off.
Of course, I remember the 1960’s better. I grew up in Houston in a new suburban ranch-style brick home with a fenced back yard containing a sweet, but dumber-than-dirt beagle, and a fabulous ditch running next to the street bordering our front yard. That ditch was wilderness freedom for me, my siblings and all the other kids living on the block. We hunted crawdads in the mud, picked dewberries next to the curb, fought turf wars over prime real estate (prime real estate being any part of the ditch that sported a temporary bridge- usually made out of an old discarded 2×4 plank) and earned our first spending money by collecting littered soda bottles out of the ditch and turning them into the nearest service station for the deposit money. In the summer, we would catch fire-flies under star-lit night skies, and in the day, one of our chores was to wash all the squashed love-bugs off our parents’ cars before the bug’s splattered guts ate away the car’s paint job.
I was a teenager in the 70’s, so I wasn’t paying much attention to anything happening in the world that wasn’t within a 10 foot radius of me. But I did have one experience that shocked me into contemplating, at least for a little while, where our planet earth’s future was headed.
It was the beginning of the summer of ’74. The last window unit air-conditioner in our house had just sputtered out, making terrible death rattles as it seized up in its frame. Having no money for repairs, my mom announced that we were not staying in sweltering Houston for another summer, but that we were “Going North”. Somehow she got us jobs at a summer camp on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and away we went, heading north in our VW camper (no, we weren’t hippies, we just liked driving and camping). On our way up there, we decided we should go to New York City and do the tourist thing. After driving over 1500 miles of 2 lane highways snaking through mostly farm lands and pastures, we were about an hour away from New York City when we noticed a strange greenish grey haze on the eastern horizon. As we got closer to the city, the haze became more distinct and it was with disgust that we realized we must be looking at air pollution. I had heard my parents use this word, “air pollution” before, but had never bothered to really listen to what was being said. It was horrible, this obvious green dome of foul-smelling vapors covering the city. We decided we didn’t need to experience any of that and basically did a drive-by wave to NYC as we stepped on the gas pedal and drove straight through in search of fresher air. I could not believe that people lived in and breathed that air and decided that New Yorkers must be made of sterner stuff than us Texans.
We repeated this trip to the Cape every summer for three years (never did get the air-conditioners fixed). And on our last trip returning home, we noticed that Houston had acquired its own green dome. And smell. But like anything else that you are constantly being subjected too, it became the norm and after a while, you don’t even notice the pollution anymore. Or the absence of the crawdads, stars, the fireflies or the love bugs.
So what do my childhood reminiscences have to do with Earth Day? Well, being an air-head teenager, I didn’t listen to the news, only Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Hits Countdown on Sunday afternoons on the radio. But thank goodness other people were paying attention. They not only noticed the green smog monster, they noticed rivers on fire from all the chemical pollutants, health issues for man and beast from chemical pesticides and increasing extinctions of all forms of life. They not only noticed these and other significant environmental problems brought about by human activity, they decided to do something about them. On April 22, 1970, 22 million people participated in the first Earth Day activities in the U.S. This was a grass-roots demonstration against the degradation of the earth’s natural resources and spearheaded by Senator Gaylord Nelson, a World War II veteran and lawyer as well as previous Wisconsin governor. Also in 1970, the first environmental advocacy group was formed , the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)which currently has over 3 million supporters around the world with a staff of over 700 scientists, lawyers and specialists on the environment. In December 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was signed into existence by President Nixon. The Clean Air Act was then passed in 1970, followed by the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. These series of regulations aim at reducing and eliminating many harmful pollutants and have resulted over the years in significantly cleaner skies and water and has helped protect wildlife habitats which in turn, help to protect us. And according to the EPA, all these improvements to the environment have been accomplished while the US Gross National Product (a measurement of how well the economy is doing) has increased almost 300% since 1970. So apparently, despite numerous EPA regulations and the financial cost associated with keeping in compliance with those regulations, the economy has thrived.
Because of the work of environmentalists, the release of pollutants such as lead, sulfur, mercury, other trace heavy metals and ozone have been reduced with subsequent health benefits. Improvements to wildlife habitats and increased regulation of pesticides have allowed some species to recover, such as the American Bald Eagle which was on the Endangered List in 1970. Other wildlife, such as the white-tailed deer in Missouri had all but disappeared by 1926 secondary to unregulated hunting. At that time, there was estimated to be only 400 deer left in Missouri. Since the formation of the Missouri Department of Conservation and their subsequent regulations, the deer have flourished and our hunters bagged over 280,000 deer in the 2019 season alone. However, we clever humans continue to make a mess of this fish bowl that we live in. What with the huge amount of trash we keep producing, and the enormous amounts of wilderness we keep developing, and our ongoing production of greenhouse gases, there is real concern about the livability of this earth for even our next generation. We have already lost so many kinds of wildlife to extinction- from bugs to rhinos to birds to plants to fish… It is estimated that since humans got really good at killing stuff, we have killed off up to 60% of the world’s wildlife. I’m talking about sheer numbers here. Over 50% of the actual amount of other life forms on earth are gone. We have accomplished this mostly by taking over their habitats for our own use so there is nowhere for them to live, but we also eat a lot them (the joys of being top of the food chain).
Earth Day is now an international annual event that helps bring public focus onto current environmental problems and solutions. It has traditionally been associated with hands-on activities such as road and park clean-ups, tree planting (1 billion trees were planted between 2010 and 2012) and, my personal favorite- fun recycling games and stuff! This year, because of the COVID-19 epidemic, Earth Day is going digital. Earthday.org has all kinds of information and suggestions of activities that families or individuals can do that will make a world of difference! So go on-line and let’s recognize Mother Earth for at least this one day of the year set aside in her honor.
And if you happen to be in Garden City, Kansas this Friday, stop by the Finney County Historical Museum to see the World’s Largest Hairball in celebration of National Hairball Day. Something you probably won’t forget, but wish you could.