Earth Day

EarthLIFE BEGINS AT 40: Today marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, a tradition that helped spark the modern environmental movement and remains its most widespread and well-known holiday (partly because there are actually two of them, with the other celebrated March 21). The April 22 Earth Day was born in 1970 out of a growing U.S. awareness of ecological and public health issues, spurred by disasters like the Santa Barbara oil spill and Cuyahoga River fire in 1969. After President Richard Nixon founded the EPA in January 1970 — symbolically making it his "first official act of the decade" — Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wisc., held the first Earth Day that April, with some 20 million people celebrating in coast-to-coast rallies. Earth Day has seen dramatic environmental progress since then, from reining in air and water pollution to saving endangered species and promoting recycling. There are of course still plenty of major issues left — global warming was barely a blip on the public radar four decades ago, for example, and an array of chemicals like BPA are only just beginning to reveal their subtle dark sides — but that's what the last 40 years have proven: People can actually solve big environmental problems, as long as we actually try.

MNN has you covered today with a variety of Earth Day coverage, which you can peruse at our Earth Day homepage. There's an animated history of Earth Day, a look at the best in Earth Day entertainment, a list of 40 eco-ideas for Earth Day, Earth Day projects for kids, and much more. But since Earth Day is about thinking globally, here's a look at what else is going on today around the Web:

  • EARTH MIRTH: The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is hosting one of the largest Earth Day gatherings in U.S. history today, with a daylong celebration of the environmental movement that's also a rally for climate change legislation in Congress. The event will feature speakers including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, director James Cameron and author Margaret Atwood, and music from Sting, the Roots, Jimmy Cliff (pictured), Bob Weir, John Legend and others. Simultaneous (and free) rallies will be held in [skipwords]New York[/skipwords] City, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. (Source: Earth Day Network)
  • JOE VS. THE VOLCANO: Vice President Joe Biden announced $452 million in new Recovery Act funding on Earth Day Eve, divvying it out to 25 U.S. cities, states and regional groups for green building retrofits that he called a "triple win." "It's a win for consumers who save money on their energy bill," he explained. "It's a win for the environment because we're using less energy, which cuts down on harmful emissions from greenhouse gases. And, finally, it's a win for the American economy, because it creates green jobs, jobs that can't be outsourced." Unfortunately, despite the optimism of one commenter on ABC News' site, Biden didn't "propose anything that can fix that volcano in Iceland." (Sources: Huffington Post, ABC News)
  • OUT OF THE FRYING PAN: The Los Angeles Times has a Q&A with Denis Hayes, co-founder of the first Earth Day and now president of the Earth Day Network. Hayes talks to the Times about how the holiday has evolved since he left grad school to coordinate the first one 40 years ago. "In 1970, the stuff we were mobilizing people around was obvious," Hayes says. "You could see it, smell it, taste it. The big issues that remain now are things that are largely impossible to detect unless you have sophisticated instruments. They're things like climate change and ocean acidification — big issues, but not something you can see affecting your children." The AP reports a similar trend today in its Earth Day tribute — smog is down by a quarter since 1970 and airborne lead is down 90 percent, but atmospheric CO2 levels have risen 19 percent, driving up global temperatures by 1 degree Fahrenheit. (Sources: Los Angeles Times, Associated Press)
  • PAY DAY: Earth Day has become big business on its 40th anniversary, being used to sell everything from Greek yogurt and stuffed animals to bus tours and eco-dentistry. It's a far cry from the original in 1970, when organizers refused corporate money and held anti-establishment teach-ins, but while some see those changes as selling out, others see them as corporate America finally buying in. As for all the Earth Day bric-a-brac being peddled, filmmaker Robert Stone says it's just a sign of the times. "Every Earth Day is a reflection of where we are as a culture," he says. "If it has become commoditized, about green consumerism instead of systemic change, then it is a reflection of our society." (Sources: New York Times, Boston Globe)
  • PUT UP YOUR NUKES: The U.S. nuclear power industry has been on a roller-coaster ride since the original Earth Day, first growing rapidly and then grinding to a halt after a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, Pa., in 1979. But while atom smashing was once seen by environmentalists as an aberration of nature that threatened epic disasters, the public has warmed up to the idea in recent years, especially as electricity demand keeps rising and coal-fired power plants keep making climate change worse. The Obama administration has embraced nuclear energy, too, offering more than $50 billion in federal loan guarantees that have helped kick off the first construction of new reactors in nearly 30 years. The [skipwords]New York[/skipwords] Times examines this trend today in a special "Business of Green" section, taking an in-depth look at the fits and starts of the new nuclear renaissance. (Source: New York Times)
  • EARTH CONTROL: Following its Valentine's Day campaign to hand out 100,000 free condoms, the Center for Biological Diversity is back for more today, giving away 250,000 prophylactics to highlight the link between overpopulation and environmental distress. A network of 5,000 volunteers is working in all 50 states — plus Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico — to distribute the condoms, which feature witticisms like "Hump smarter, save the snail darter" and "Wrap with care, save the polar bear." The condoms are made of non-biodegradable latex, but the CBD's Randy Serraglio e-mails the [skipwords]New York[/skipwords] Times to explain the trade-off, comparing condoms to Priuses, which both have environmental benefits that likely outweigh their waste and energy use. (Sources: Center for Biological Diversity, New York Times)
OIL RIG EXPLOSION: The U.S. Coast Guard is still searching for 11 missing oil rig workers in the Gulf of Mexico today, following a catastrophic explosion aboard an offshore oil platform Tuesday night. The aerial search was called off after dark Wednesday night and began at dawn this morning, although rescuers continued to search using boats throughout the night, hoping the missing workers had made it to one of the rig's lifeboats, which are fully enclosed and fire-resistant. Most of the 126 people on board the oil rig at the time of the explosion are accounted for, and 17 who were injured were evacuated from the rig by helicopter, while the rest were taken to shore with no major injuries. The rig involved in the explosion — known as "Deepwater Horizon" —  is a mobile unit that moves around the Gulf, and had been drilling in its current location since January. An executive with Transocean Ltd., the company that owns the rig, said Wednesday that "we are deeply saddened by this event. Our thoughts and prayers are with the crew members of the Deepwater Horizon and their families." The Coast Guard says there's no indication terrorism was involved, and an investigation into the explosion's cause in under way. (Sources: CNN, New Orleans Times-Picayune)


BORNEO AGAIN: The Borneo rain forest has revealed 123 new species of plants and animals to scientists conducting a three-year research project there, which the explorers hope will boost their efforts to conserve 85,000 square miles of the pristine tropical ecosystem. The new species include a lungless frog, a flying frog, a bright orange snake (pictured), the world's longest insect (22 inches long), a misshapen slug that shoots "love darts" during mating, as well as 67 plants, 17 fish and a variety of other snakes, lizards and invertebrates. Charles Darwin once called the rain forest "one great luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself," and the WWF researchers say they aim to keep it that way, serving as a refuge for countless species that live nowhere else on Earth. "If this stretch of irreplaceable rain forest can be conserved for our children," says the leader of WWF's Heart of Borneo project, "the promise of more discoveries must be a tantalizing one for the next generation of researchers to contemplate." (Source: AP)

DRINKING PROBLEMS: Two recent studies about the health effects of drinking alcohol may seem seem so contradictory you need a drink: Researchers with the University of Milan report that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to increased cancer risk and accelerated aging, while other researchers with Johns Hopkins say they've discovered how red wine can safeguard the brain against future strokes. In the first study, scientists found that excessive drinking can shorten the length of telomeres, which are like biological clocks that dictate aging, tacked on to the ends of our chromosomes. In effect, drinking too much for too long can speed up the aging process and make cancer more likely to develop. On the other hand, the Johns Hopkins study focused on how resveratrol in red wine can prepare brain cells for a stroke by coating them in a natural enzyme that protects them from damage. The scientists gave some mice a dose of resveratrol and induced a stroke two hours later, finding that those given the booster suffered much less brain damage than those without it. "Our study adds to evidence that resveratrol can potentially build brain resistance to ischemic stroke," says the study's lead author, although he advises against taking resveratrol supplements, since alcohol may be key to achieving the effect. While these two studies may seem to conflict, however, they actually highlight a central theme of Earth Day: everything in moderation. Of course, it's also a holiday, so an extra glass of red wine or three is probably also fine — just make sure to walk, carpool or take public transit instead of driving. (Sources: e! Science News, Johns Hopkins Medicine)

Russell McLendon

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Photo (Earth): NASA

Photo (Jimmy Cliff): ZUMA Press

Photo (Joe Biden):

Photo (air pollution): Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Photo (Vogtle nuclear plant near Augusta, Ga.): U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Image (endangered species condom): Center for Biological Diversity

Photo (Gulf of Mexico oil rig fire): ZUMA Press

Photo (newly discovered snake species): AP

Photo (red wine):

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.