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Reflections on Earth Day after 43 years

May 1, 2013

• We have moved backward from the future

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Earth Day started 43 years ago in 1970 as a teach-in led by former Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., with support from U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey, R-Calif. It raised public awareness about environmental deterioration.

As graduate students at the University of Michigan, we were involved in its design and implementation. For us, the highlights included hearing the chief executive of New York’s largest utility agreeing on the need to address pollution from oil and coal-powered electrical plants. He warned consumers that pollution controls would increase the cost of electricity.

Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, acknowledged the need to make fewer and smaller cars to curb auto emissions. A leading chemist lamented that controlling chemical pollutants one at a time was inadequate, and recommended it be done by chemical families.

A regional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official with pollution control responsibilities released an internal EPA study indicating that asbestos fibers in the taconite tailing being dumped into Lake Superior could be controlled at a very reasonable cost. He released the study, knowing full well it would cost him his job, but he felt it essential to reveal the truth.

Ralph Nader informed students that if they were truly serious about curbing pollution, they should begin changing their consumption patterns and could start by stopping drinking carbonated beverages.

More than 15,000 people filled the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., and roared with approval for each presentation just as if they were cheering for their basketball team.

The most startling presentation for us, as students working on our Ph.D.s, was the announcement by a recently minted Ph.D. who was part of the research team to unlock the secrets of DNA that he was leaving the field of genetics. He feared the new understandings would lead to a new wave of biological weapons of war.

The next day at our jobs as environmental consultants to a local school district, the principal declared he had heard the evening’s program on the radio and considered it a communist conspiracy.

A small contribution from us gained national visibility when Time magazine included a bumper sticker we designed calling for only two children.

The call for environmental reforms launched a national and international effort at curbing pollution. Some victories were attained, and it is good to be able to continue to celebrate Earth Days after all these years. We are thankful for those still supporting environmental reforms and honoring Earth Day, but the movement needs far more vigor to address the scope of ongoing environmental damage.

Our environmental problems are both local and global. Some firms are moving ahead with positive actions, such as upgrading energy efficiency in their operations, setting environmental standards for those firms that are part of their supply chain, installing solar panels and providing organic food options for their customers. Other firms are actively blocking the needed reforms.

While some progress has been made, it falls far short of what is essential. We know the facts of what is going wrong, but we have yet to develop a broad-based commitment to sustainable lifestyles.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the May 1-7, 2013, issue

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