I have only vague recollections of the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. I do, however, remember that month very well for another reason.
I was in 3rd grade at Haugen Elementary, in the Albany Park neighborhood in Chicago. About a week earlier, I had awoken to the news that Apollo 13, which was supposed to be the third manned flight to the moon, had had an explosion. I was-- and still am-- fascinated by space flight. I'd remembered being allowed to stay up late to watch the grainy, upside down images of Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon the summer before.
Every day of that crisis, from April 13 to April 17, 1970, my little science nerd buddies and I excitedly discussed all the problems Mission Commander Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swieckert had in getting back: the fear that they'd get the trajectory wrong by a degree or two and either burn up or bounce into space forever; that their oxygen supply wouldn't last; whether the electronics in the LEM had been damaged in the explosion; for gods sake, even a typhoon approaching their landing site!
I remember when they announced over the intercom at school that the astronauts had landed safely, and how we cheered.
Later, Jim Lovell was to comment on how the mission and their near-fatal adventure had really driven in the point to him that earth is a warm, relatively hospitable island in a cold, unforgiving univerese.
Ironically, it had been Lovell's crew on Apollo 8 in December of 1968 that took this picture, one that has become very, very famous. It was also, largely, the inspiration for Earth Day, for really visualizing the point that Lovell had made about the earth's place in the universe.
The first Earth Day I remember really well was the one when I was in fifth grade at Parkwood Elementary in Hanover Park, Illinois. It was a school that was shared by two suburbs, Hanover Park, of course, and Streamwood, where my family lived.
Both suburbs were classic suburbs-- land that was formerly farmland, where they'd stripped the topsoil off, built the subdivision, put the topsoil back around the houses and planted a few trees. We moved there in April, 1971, not long before the second Earth Day.
I've read that 1971 was the height of suburbanization-- the height of movement from cities to the suburbs.
The reasons my folks moved from the city to the suburbs were perfectly logical. For about what they were spending on a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago, they could buy a three-bedroom house, with a yard and great schools. Yeah, believe it or not, there was a time when Streamwood and Hanover Park had great schools.
There was even a time when Chicago had great schools. A time when a bunch of blue-collar kids in third grade would discuss space flight, physics, elections, race relations, and a bunch of other things.
The reason I remember Earth Day, 1972 is that I won something. We had an Earth Day drawing, and I won a sapling. It was a poplar sapling that was about 3 feet tall. I planted it in our backyard a day or two later.
By the time we moved out of that house for the greener pastures of Western Springs in 1974, it had grown to be taller than me, or either of my parents.
About six years ago, I happened to be near that house to attend a wedding. I hadn't been out that way in years. My wife at the time, Cynthia, and I drove out there-- she wanted to see where I'd lived. To my surprise, the tree I'd planted was not only there, but was now about 40 feet high-- poplars grow fast, I'd read.
Right now, I'm reading Jared Diamond's book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." I'd wanted to read it since reading the reviews a couple of years ago, but I'd felt like I should read his book "Guns, Germs and Steel," which has become somewhat of a classic, first.
If you're inclined, read "Guns, Germs and Steel." It'll help contextualize "Collapse." But I feel like though "Guns, Germs and Steel" was his big hit breakthrough book, "Collapse" was the book that is his life's work.
"Collapse" is an examination of the explosive growth, and of course collapse, of various societies in the earth's past-- Easter Island, the Mayans, the Norse settlement on Greenland, New Guinea and others. He draws parallels to modern societies that have collapsed for various reasons. I'm most interested to see how he ties the 1994 Rwandan genocide to it all.
Back in the late seventies, during the so-called "Energy Crisis," there was an explosion of interest in sustainable agriculture, "alternative" energy sources, solar energy, wind power and such. President Jimmy Carter was excellent about supporting these initiatives, and there were serious gains made in these areas.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected, and all of these initatives were allowed to expire. The United States continued a policy of expansion of the use of fossil fuel that included building a huge military that was used, in part, to protect petroleum interests in the Middle East.
We are, of course, immersed in a disasterous war in Iraq relating to maintaining that supply of fossil fuel.
When I was a kid, one of the big mysteries was "What happened on Easter Island?"
Easter Island is an island in the Pacific that offered a mystery to the first European explorers who got there. Here was a sparsely inhabited island that had a tiny population of people, and a bunch of enormous-- ten tons or more-- carved stone heads that had been created and moved around. There were almost no trees and very few people on the island. How had this come to be?
Around the time I'd planted my tree in Streamwood, there were popular theories, promoted by Eric Van Danicken ("Chariots of the Gods") and others, that aliens had come to earth and had created and placed these statues. In the early nineties, better theories had been come about: that societies had developed on the island that had started competing to build the enormous statues. To move them to the desired spots, they'd cut the then-plentiful trees and used them.
In Collapse, Jared Diamond asks the question, wondering what the Easter Islanders were thinking when they cut down their last tree?
What the Easter Islanders didn't know was that the ecology of their little island was quite fragile, and the the trees they were cutting down were part of a web that made the island livable. In cutting down their trees for short-term goals, they were sealing their doom.
Jared Diamond's clear implication was that the Easter Islanders had the intelligence, energy, and vision to create a self-sustaining society, but chose not to do so.
In "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore uses another image of the earth from the Apollo 8 mission, appropriately.
I'll assume that most people reading this blog have seen the movie. I've only seen the first half of it-- I showed half of it to my students a few weeks ago, and haven't sent it back to Netflix yet, realizing that I need to watch it attentively, perhaps with my son, who raves about it.
On this Earth Day, 35 years after I planted that tree that's taking carbon out of the air still, I want to point out that while we're down, we're not out.
My best friend Jim, who's never shown an interest in the environment before, sent me an email with seven ways to reduce your "carbon footprint."
Texas, of all places, is the biggest producer of wind energy, I found out recently.
Spain's biggest utility just bought a bunch of huge wind energy farms. In fact, Europe in general is going green.
And of course, my son thinks that Al Gore should run for President again-- though he'd be fine with voting for Barack Obama if he were 18.
I think back to that tree I planted when I was ten, and think of Johnny Appleseed; what if I'd planted a tree a month since then? I'd love to know the math-- what would my overall "carbon footprint" be?
Unlike the peoples of Easter Island, we have the benefit of knowledge and technology. I'd like to think that some archeologist, perhaps with the same view Jim Lovell had of the earth in 1968, won't have to look at the remnants of our planet and say to him or herself, about the last car we built, the last energy-wasting suburban tract home-- or even the last tree we cut down-- "What were they thinking?"