In June of 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Northeastern Ohio caught fire. The river had been so polluted by industrial waste that Time Magazine called it the river that "oozes rather than flows". While the river had caught fire several times before, this time the public paid attention, and the attention led in the next year to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, The Clean Air Act, and the first Earth Day. The river is far from its pristine pre-industrial state, but is significantly improved.
At the start of the 19th century, there were over 1 Billion passenger pigeons in North America. Their flocks were said to be so large and dense that that they could darken the sky for an hour as they passed overhead. Throughout the century, large scale hunting and de-forestation in North America put increasing stress on the pigeons. In 1914, the last known member of the species, a female named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. There are no more passenger pigeons.
With Earth Day
approaching on April 22nd, and World Fair Trade Day
on May 10th, it’s a good time to reflect on these two tales. We can all influence positive change, but sometimes we don’t. We can encourage and support biodiversity, sustainable agricultural practices, projects that create access to clean drinking water, and programs that help educate and protect the health of children. Like the case of the Cuyahoga, we may be dissatisfied with the progress, but we move closer to a better world none the less.
We can also choose to do nothing, but we need to acknowledge that this choice is not a neutral action, but rather a continuation of unsustainable behavior that will result in the world being a little worse off each day. Earth Day and World Fair Trade Day are meant to bring attention to the planet we share, and the people we share it with. If most of us choose to do something to make a positive change, then the world will be a lot better off. If most of us choose not to, then it will not.
Every year I – like a majority of Americans – make a new year’s resolution to improve myself. Why not also make a resolution to improve the planet? I plan on using these two holidays this year to make such a commitment, and I encourage you all to do the same. Read labels. Purchase ethical and sustainable products. Educate others. Write a letter to a retailer. Turn off lights. Avoid bottled water. Offset the energy you do use. Start small if you need to and gradually do more.
The advertising firm Act Now coined the term “personal sustainability project” (PSP), and has helped Wal-Mart and other firms encourage over a million of their employees to take a small first (or additional) step. Some of these individual commitments have led to big changes – such as Wal-Mart’s recently announced line of Fair Trade coffees
. Others have been on a smaller scale, such as an individual’s choice to drink tap water or recycle their cans. The journey to a sustainable and just planet may be a long journey. But the longest journey begins with the first step.
Martin Luther King said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Don’t be silent….encourage yourself and those around you to make a commitment, and truly celebrate these two worldwide events.