Earth Day deserve more personal attention

First published:
April 25, 2001

Earth Day came and went last weekend with little more than a blip on the radar in Northumberland County. It would be too easy to interpret this as something negative, as if our community is no longer interested in environmental issues. But that is not quite the case either. What happened on April 22 is very significant in representing where we are succeeding and where we are failing.

In some respect, Earth Day is commonplace today. Celebrated every April 22, Earth Day is the largest, most celebrated environmental event worldwide. More than six million Canadians participate annually, joining 500 million people in over 164 countries in staging events and projects to address local environmental issues.  First launched as an environmental awareness event in the United States in 1970, Earth Day is celebrated as the birth of the environmental movement. The first Earth Day was led by Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson and Harvard University student Denis Hayes, focusing mainly on pollution.  From these efforts major legislative changes took place in the United States.

In 1990, two million Canadians joined 200 million people in 141 nations in celebrating the first International Earth Day. Today, nearly every school child in Canada takes part in an Earth Day activity.

In those early days local municipal governments was highly involved. There were seedling trees available for planting, composters and digesters for sale. All kinds of literature is handed out in an effort to better educator residents in Northumberland. Every municipality had a strong, vocal committee that was working hard to change people’s attitudes toward getting rid of garbage, recycling and composting. Also, each municipality was responsible for looking after its own waste, usually operating a local landfill.

Many of those environmental committees continue to exist. They continue to take on various activities. Port Hope/Hope’s committee held an event on Saturday marking Earth Day with the usual seedlings, composters etc. The Ganaraska Forest Centre held a day in the sugar bush that was advertised under Earth Day in the local media. What making maple syrup has to do with preserving the environment might need some clarification.

But other municipalities did not hold events on Earth Day. The county is holding its annual composter sale, but not until May. Cobourg did nothing this year. Haldimand/Alnwick also took a pass, as did Hamilton Township. Some young people were spotted on Dale Road Saturday cleaning ditches.

It can be easily argued that the municipalities do not have to hold events anymore. Schools in the county are very active. The county has a recycling program and a waste diversion plant to ensure less material is going into dumps. The user-pay collection system also drives home the point by keeping us conscious of the cost of waste disposal as we dutifully place our bag tags. The Beyond the Blue Box and other re-use program ensure we are not throwing out items that has a bit of life left in them.

We are also more environmentally sensitive, compared to those early years. Pollsters tell us that when they survey Canadians, an overwhelming number consistently say they care about the environment and are prepared to go well beyond simple recycling programs to ensure we do not destroy the earth. So maybe Earth Day is redundant. Hardly.

Take a trip into a store to see how much packaging goes into products. In some cases, it is ludicrous the cardboard, plastic, and other materials being used. Look around the next time you are out driving to see all the gas guzzling car, truck and sport utility vehicles are spewing pollution into the air and drinking up gasoline (despite sky high gas prices). And finally, what happened to the county’s waste management plan. Recently municipalities were still fighting over compensation packages for the landfills turned over years ago. There is only a passing mention of the compost plant that was one a part of an integrated long-term plan for reducing garbage going into our landfills.

The Walkerton water disaster is a wake up call. It showed us how quickly everything can go from being fine to an environmental disaster. Our job in becoming environmentally smart communities and citizens is far from over. And it should begin with our municipal leaders.

Let’s not leave everything to schools and community groups on Earth Day. Municipalities should go well beyond the annualize events that add to our complacency rather than challenge it. The county should be doing more on the actual day and its policies should reflect a larger, integrated vision, not the short-term problem solving that will only get politicians and bureaucrat’s attention when a crisis strikes. We should not be waiting for landfills to be at capacity or threatened with closure.

Earth Day deserves more of our personal energy. It can be a time of celebration and education, along with a recommitment to making our planet a better place. And while it may sound grandiose, we should aspire to higher heights. Otherwise, the hypocrisy is unbearable.

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