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Earth Day Turns 45, but Local Groups Say We've Got a Ways to Go
The first Earth Day was a call to action in the wake of what seemed at the time to be a litany of endless toxic messes -- a river catching fire in Ohio; smog so thick you couldn't see across rush hour traffic in Los Angeles; staggering oil-saturated seabirds in Santa Barbara following the largest oil spill in U.S. history at the time.
These were the poster children of the modern environmental movement born on April 22, 1970.
Forty-five years after that first Earth Day, which is celebrated Wednesday, anxiety over more and worse environmental disasters has morphed into a deeper fear that our planet is undergoing fundamental changes. Our way of life could fundamentally change, scientists predict. Despite a growing body of scientific evidence for man-made climate change, the defense of fossil fuels persists.
Earth Day Network's chief Kathleen Rogers got an earful of that point of view recently at The Wall Street Journal's ECO:nomics conference in Santa Barbara. After the bad-mouthing of solar and wind came to a close, speakers sat down to a healthy dinner of organic, sustainable seafood they all raved about.
She had to laugh.
"Are these people completely disconnected from 'The Movement,' or do they see fossil fuels as different from the sustainable fisheries movement or organic food?" she asks. "On the continuum of environmentalism, it's already embedded. They have chosen to go green, they just don't know it -- and that's OK. We'll move past them. It's tragic for the world if we don't move fast, but we'll still move past them."
In the 21st century, the big challenge facing the world is climate change.
"It's the 800-pound gorilla, and anyone who says it isn't has a serious agenda," Rogers says. "We have overpopulation, water quantity and quality issues worldwide and all sorts of problems that can't be solved without tackling the environment. There are lots of wars fought over natural resources, and if climate change gets much worse, we're also going to see real battles over that.
Not just countries going broke trying to pay for adaptation and mitigation. Whether it's New York City or Holland or the Florida coast, it's going to cost an unbelievable amount of money."
California lives up to its trendsetting reputation when it comes to environmental degradation -- and how people respond to it. Redondo Beach voluntarily put restrictions on plans for offshore oil drilling last month. On the other hand, Gov. Jerry Brown has imposed mandatory water restrictions throughout the state in the wake of its worst drought on record.
"For us, every day is Earth Day," says Chad Nelson, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation, which has been advocating for safe and healthy beaches around the world since 1984. "But Earth Day is a great opportunity for us to remind folks that 'Hey! There's still a lot of work that needs to be done.' "
Among all the challenges facing California in the coming decade is how to adapt to rapid sea-level rise and eroding coastlines, as well as the problem of ocean acidification -- when seawater absorbs too much carbon dioxide, triggering a chemical reaction that harms marine life, including oysters and lobsters.
Urban runoff is another contributor to ocean acidification.
Promoting "Ocean Friendly Gardens" is one way in which Surfrider is addressing the problem.
"We still tolerate a level of pollution in the ocean that we don't tolerate on land," Nelson says. "If people were getting sick regularly at your local park from touching the grass because it was bacteria laden or there was a sewage spill, of course there would be no tolerance for that. We have this out-of-sight, out- of-mind attitude with the ocean, which is something we're trying to raise awareness about and are having a fair amount of success."
The organization supported the statewide ban on single-use plastic bags, advocated for smoking bans on beaches and continues to fight off-shore drilling campaigns.
Friends of the Los Angeles River is working to restore the L.A. River to its former glory -- before the Army Corps of Engineers channelized it in the late 1930s.
"(Our fundamental) goal is seeing the return of the steelhead trout and the red-legged frog," says poet Lewis MacAdams, who founded FoLAR 26 years ago and serves as its president. "We're slowly returning a habitat that was conducive to the survival of the original native species."
Today portions of the river are more open and inviting thanks to the efforts of FoLAR volunteers. The group hosts the last of three cleanup efforts along the natural sections of the river's more than 50-mile stretch from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday in the Lower River -- Lower Compton Creek, Willow Street Estuary in Long Beach and the Golden Shore Marine Reserve, one of the few remaining wetlands in L.A. County.
"People now think of the river as something they're curious about and want to see for themselves, and we certainly want them to think that way," MacAdams says. "That's how we build a political movement to accomplish this."
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