A half-century ago, I stood on the Waterbury green — a very green college freshman — trying in vain to hand pamphlets about the environment to uninterested mill town passersby.
This year, on Wednesday, April 22, will be the golden anniversary of Earth Day. Only this year, we’re sheltering in place.
“The earth is talking to us,” said Margaret Miner, of Roxbury.
Homebound and coronavirus-centered, people may only tangentially be aware the Trump administration is continuing to smash up environmental regulations that actually make this a better place — cleaner air, cleaner water.
And climate change proceeds apace. When a vaccine displaces COVID-19 and our lives become a little more normal, there will still be fires and flooding, melting glaciers and rising seas.
So what are we to think?
It’s a little worthwhile to ask people what they were doing 50 years ago.
Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi — who is recovering from COVID-19 — was a senior at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass. in 1970. He and others spent Earth Day cleaning litter from the campus grounds.
“It’s amazing how far it’s come,” he said of an environmental movement that’s moved from local trash to global concerns.
Miner, the former director of Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, was living in New York City, separating her recyclables. She saw firsthand how important green spaces — city parks — were to the people living there.
“I wasn’t involved in the first Earth Day,” she said, “but I was waking up.”
Kathleen Nelson of New Milford, and president of the Mad Gardeners of Litchfield County, was in Manhattan as well, celebrating Earth Day at a rally in Union Square.
“We were so optimistic then,” she said. “We thought people would understand and take action.”
Now Nelson leads the Sisyphean fight against non-native invasive species that afflict the landscape. That many people are still blithely unconcerned about the environment leaves her baffled.
The coronavirus has followed the pattern of other invasive species.
Invasive plants arrive here because people import them. The Emerald ash borer decimating our forests arrived in packing aboard a cargo ship. COVID-19 caught a ride on a human host who came here on a passenger plane — the same way that West Nile virus arrived in 1999.
Michael Klemens, a conservation biologist who has worked throughout the state on land use issues, said this is all part of the breakdown of barriers around the globe.
“Coronavirus, Ebola, the Emerald Ash borer. It’s accelerating and spreading,” he said.
Joel Gordes, an energy consultant who has advocated for solar energy in the state, was a bit removed from Earth Day.
“I happened to be in a place called Vietnam,” he said.
Gordes was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, flying reconnaissance missions. He saw the destruction U.S. bombing runs levied on the Vietnamese environment. An article in Scientific American, “The Cratering of Vietnam,” gave him some perspective on the damage and made him an environmentalist.
“I got out of the Air Force in 1973,” Gordes said. “By 1975, I was testifying before the Connecticut General Assembly about alternative energy.”
Gordes said the nation’s environmental policies are now run by “conservatives who are not conservatives.”
By ignoring climate change, he said, their policies will subject the world to greater instability.
“By then, it may be too late,” he said.
Klemens, while crediting the state with some good environmental policies, said that in recent years things are moving in the wrong direction.
“I see tremendous backsliding at the federal level and I see a lot of backsliding at the state level,” he said.
That includes a state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection more concerned with energy production than environmental protection, Klemens said. He resigned from the state Siting Council in 2019 because of that shift.
Miner of the Rivers Alliance agreed, saying that water pollution problems have been growing.
“Even before the federal rollbacks, we were sliding back a lot,” she said
Klemens said he is also concerned that the grand visions of a Green New Deal now pressed by some politicians — which includes issues such as job creation, urban development and income equality — may confuse people. Concentrating on truly green issues is the better course, he said.
Miner said that with all the evidence at hand, with a global pandemic mixed with global warming, there’s an urgent need for a global wake-up — like the one occurring now from the coronavirus.
“Things are out of kilter,” she said. “We need a new Earth Day.”