Budget cuts, deregulation, wolves taken off the endangered species list — as heated brawls over environmental policy sweep the nation, the 41st Earth Day comes at a time of particularly touchy politics. But this Earth Day, I plan to step outside the political sphere for a moment, instead reflecting on how my sense of personal responsibility has evolved over the years. After all — individuals account for 39.4 percent of U.S. power consumption
, as MNN's Karl Burkhart so aptly pointed out.
As a child, and especially as a teenager, I found Earth Day boring. I knew about the smog already. I knew the landfills were enormous and the polar bears were in trouble. Amid the stereotypical images flashed routinely in public school Earth Day celebrations, I felt no connection to the issues at hand. In the end, what could I do about any of those problems?
While much of this view came from immaturity (flash forward five years and I'm blogging about corn ethanol, meat demand and state conservation laws), I believe there's a lesson in my former apathy. Adolescents are bombarded with lofty conversations about global warming, endangered species, and the evils of big business, but it's often not until college that students find chances to become activists themselves and develop a personal stake in these dialogues. Many young people don't become passionate about an issue until they can take ownership of that issue.
All this is to say I plan to take a personal — let's call it a pEarthonal — day for Earth Day with my younger brother. As a high school student, he has yet to experience the thrill of taking a stand for environmentalism — or the thrill of an intriguing class discussion on Earth Day for that matter. We've spoken about this, but despite my obsession with environmental issues, we've never really done anything about it. So finally, I've come up with something: bug watching.
When my brother and I were children, we were always watching bugs in our big backyard in Georgia. After collecting ants and worms and beetles in our little plastic bug habitat, we'd feed them remnants of our snacks, give them awkward names, poke them with sticks — the usual research. So now, I want us to start watching bees.
The idea wasn't mine. It's called The Great Sunflower Project
, and it's the perfect way to merge colossal, world-changing environmental problems with personal activism. The Great Sunflower Project is trying to locate our bees. Starting in the late 1940s (coincidentally when use of pesticides for industrial agriculture began skyrocketing) US and world bee populations started declining rapidly. The decline continues today; the USDA has reported a 34% loss of honey bees in 2010 and a recent drop of bumble bee populations by a whopping 96 percent.
Why does this matter? One in every three bites of our food is made possible by pollination. If this rapid loss of bees — known as colony collapse disorder — continues at current rates, there will likely be massive food shortages and a critical, monstrously expensive need for artificial pollination in agriculture. The world's food security rests on pollination, so The Great Sunflower Project is trying to locate our bees.
Volunteers fuel this initiative by acting as citizen scientists
. They simply plant sunflower seeds at their homes and wait for bees to come (bees love sunflowers in particular). Then, volunteers record which types of bees they see and in what quantities, later submitting these observations online to provide crucial information on local bee populations.
So this Earth Day, my brother and I will rummage through the basement for a dozen or so old pots, mix up some soil and organic fertilizer, and plant sunflower seeds. And this summer, we're going to watch bugs again. As strange as this bonding exercise may sound, I can't wait. It's one thing to constantly read and write about issues like food security and toxicity, but doing my part to address small needs in my local environment is a humbling exercise I don't do nearly enough. Sometimes, it takes small outreach like this to recognize the true enormity and complexity of a movement like environmentalism. And without taking responsibility for the little, not-so-glamorous jobs needed, it's hard to feel fully connected on a personal level.
This Earth Day, maybe my brother will feel that small thrill of being part of something bigger than himself. Or maybe he'll be thinking about his tan more than his insect observation skills. We won't be doing anything hugely life- or Earth-changing either way, but still, maybe this will be our chance to talk about taking ownership of an issue. And for old times sake, maybe we'll even think of some names for our bees.