Earth Day turned 41 Friday, with organizers hoping to inspire "A Billion Acts of Green," the holiday's theme for 2011. It's a noble goal, but recent events like recessions, oil spills, nuclear crises and failed climate talks may have softened some people's environmental zeal. As LiveScience reports, a Gallup poll shows 48 percent of Americans now think climate change is exaggerated — up from 41 percent in 2009 and 31 percent in 1997 — and the environment ranks eighth on the U.S. "worry list." The Chicago Tribune's Rex Huppke even says he dreads Earth Day, due to "eco-guilt." But as Maude Barlow and Shannon Biggs write in the Progressive, the goal of Earth Day isn't guilt; it's respect. To be sustainable, they argue, we need to recognize nature's "inherent rights." And while that may sound idealistic, it's already happening around the world.
Earlier this month, Bolivia introduced a "Law of Mother Earth" that would enshrine nature's rights into its legal code. That follows a precedent set in 2008 by Ecuador, the first modern nation to grant constitutional rights to nature, and may signal a growing awareness that humans are part of nature, not outside observers of it. In November 2010, Pittsburgh became the first major U.S. city to "recognize the legally enforceable rights of nature," Barlow and Biggs write, as the city council unanimously approved a law elevating the rights of communities and nature above corporate or government interests (in this case to protect them from hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking.") Nearly two dozen other U.S. cities and counties have passed similar laws, and the idea isn't to "give rights to individual bugs or trees," Barlow and Biggs explain, but to "stop the kind of development that interferes with the existence and vitality of local ecosystems." In other words, it's not "eco-guilt" that improves the world, but "eco-pride."
And in that sense, the "A Billion Acts of Green" theme is fitting. Rather than feeling guilted into action, people should be inspired to find realistic ways to drive less often, use less energy or waste less water. Since its founding in 1970, Earth Day has been about gumption, not guilt, and explaining that what's good for the environment is good for us. For instance, LiveScience reports that people often already perform "acts of green" without even knowing it. "Many people do things that would be considered environmentally sound, even if they aren't doing it for environmental reasons," says Edward Maibach, a communications professor at George Mason University in Virginia. "It's tapping into a broadly held value. People just think it's a good idea to save energy and to save money as a result of saving energy."
For more info and ideas, check out MNN's Earth Day hub, or see our lists of Earth Day entertainment, events, games and deals. (Or to catch up on Earth Day history, check out this animation and this board game.) If you're intimidated, start simple: You could go to Caribou Coffee or Starbucks Friday for free coffee, just by bringing your own mug. But don't fret if you missed Friday's freebies, since Caribou also takes 50 cents off for mug-toting customers every day, and Starbucks discounts 10 cents. And that highlights perhaps the most important lesson of Earth Day: making sensible changes all year, so you can feel good — not guilty — about your role in nature.
Earth Day is far from the only major holiday this weekend: It coincided with both Christianity's Good Friday and Judaism's celebration of Passover, and is followed Sunday by Easter, another big Christian occasion. And with the new Easter movie "Hop" now in theaters, animal-rights groups can't take much time to think about Earth Day. They're too busy focusing on Easter, anxious about the annual hordes of people who buy baby chickens, ducks and rabbits as spur-of-the-moment pets, only to later dispose of them when they outgrow their cuteness.
"People often don't realize the level of commitment that these animals require," the Humane Society of the United States' Adam Goldfarb said in a statement this week. "The animals that people associate with Easter, like chicks and baby rabbits, have complex social and nutritional needs. They can't be caged continuously or relegated to the basement or garage." Plus, it doesn't send a good message to kids when they see their parents abandon an animal after raising it, adds Susie Coston of Farm Sanctuary. "Rabbits, ducks and chickens are living, feeling animals, not holiday trinkets, yet many people impulsively purchase them without considering whether or not they are prepared to take care of them for many years to come. We urge parents to show their children that animals deserve love when they're all grown up just as much as when they were babies. They can do that by sponsoring an animal in need for their children this Easter rather than buying one." Farm Sanctuary lets people sponsor rescued farm animals — like Stacey the pig or Preston the duck — on its website.
Beyond ethical concerns, there are also health reasons not to take on a chick or duckling at Easter, reports the Sun-News of Silver City, N.M. The birds' droppings can carry salmonella, and it's not always easy to protect kids from being exposed — especially if the animals were purchased for cuddling purposes. "Children have become infected with salmonella when parents keep the baby birds inside the house and allow their small children to handle and snuggle with them," says Dr. Paul Ettestad, a public health veterinarian at the New Mexico Health Department. "In other cases, parents did not wash their hands properly after handling the birds and gave the infection to their children indirectly."
Why do environmental disasters so often strike around Earth Day? From the explosion of toxic-waste drums in New Jersey on April 21, 1980, to the Gulf oil spill on Earth Day's 40th anniversary last year, the holiday sometimes seems like a magnet for exactly the kind of crises it's meant to prevent. And once again, a high-profile environmental controversy has boiled over on Earth Week, with a gas-drilling company forced to halt all its hydraulic fracturing operations in Pennsylvania after a well blowout spilled toxic fluids into a local stream.
Chesapeake Energy, one of the top producers of shale gas in Pennsylvania, suspended all fracking statewide Thursday as it worked to contain the well blowout, Reuters reports. The blowout began Tuesday night following an equipment failure at a gas well in Canton, Pa., unleashing thousands of gallons of chemical-laced brine across farm fields and even into a local stream. Chesapeake finally stopped the spill Thursday afternoon, the AP reports, using a strategy reminiscent of BP's "top kill" efforts to control its leaking Macondo well. The company blasted a mix of plastic, ground-up tires and "drilling mud" into the well to plug it, announcing late Thursday that the operation was a success. As of Thursday night, it still didn't know what caused the blowout.
The accident comes at a prickly time for gas drillers and proponents of fracking, Reuters points out. Not only is there widespread opposition to the practice based on the chance that fracking fluids could contaminate groundwater — and that's under normal conditions, not to mention blowouts like Chesapeake's — but a U.S. congressional committee recently revealed that gas companies have routinely used known and suspected human carcinogens in fracking fluids. Pennsylvania has become ground zero for the debate over fracking, thanks to its location above the Marcellus Shale, a giant underground formation of gas-bearing shale rock. Chesapeake Energy was the No. 1 gas driller in the state last year, with 87 active wells, and its announcement of a statewide fracking stoppage is big news, argues Kate Sinding of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is the kind of incident that is likely to shine a spotlight, again, on the fact that despite repeated assurances from industry and regulators in Pennsylvania, things there keep somehow going wrong," she says.
A day after BP sought to deflect blame for the 2010 Gulf oil spill by suing three of its business partners, it's doing an about-face for Earth Day, the New York Times reports. Marking the one-year anniversary of the spill's beginning, the British oil giant announced it will donate $1 billion for initial restoration efforts along the Gulf Coast, part of a voluntary agreement with the U.S. government and five states. The deal is the largest of its kind in any oil-pollution case, the Times notes, and while it doesn't absolve BP of liability, it can only help with the company's long road to winning back the trust of skeptical Americans.
"This agreement is a great first step toward restoring our natural resources destroyed by the BP oil spill," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement. "We are eager to continue working with public, state and federal co-trustees and BP to quickly convert this down payment into projects to restore our damaged coast and replace our lost wildlife." The advance payment will be used to rebuild coastal marshes and beaches, conserve ocean habitat, and restore barrier islands, the Times reports, and will be divided among the states and two lead federal agencies overseeing the Gulf's rehabilitation. The five states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — will each get $100 million, as will the U.S. Interior Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The remaining $300 million will go to various projects proposed by the states and federal agencies.
Of course, this won't affect the roughly $21 billion worth of fines and penalties BP likely faces as a result of the spill, nor will it influence ongoing criminal and civil investigations. But it could help speed up the overall restoration process, explains NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, by getting the money flowing early and helping some of the less visible ecosystems hit by the spill. "We need to be thinking not only about the coastal portions of the Gulf, but also the open water and deep sea habitat," Lubchenco tells the Times. "They are all part of an integrated system and we believe there was damage to all of that system."
Amid all the attention the Earth has been getting this week, it's easy to forget a meteor shower will also light up the sky this weekend. It may not be as big as some other famous celestial fly-bys, but the Lyrid meteor shower is still worth checking out, National Geographic reports. It's expected to peak Friday night and before dawn Saturday morning, but may also linger into the weekend.
"Considered a minor but pretty show, the Lyrids generally produce up to 20 meteors per hour," says astronomer Raminder Singh Samra. "However, they have been historically noted to produce meteor storms, when hundreds of meteors are visible per hour. The Lyrids have also been known to produce fireball meteors — generally rare events." Such fireballs, National Geographic explains, are produced when large pieces of the meteors burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. To help you spot the Lyrids, Samra suggests keeping an eye out for the brilliant star Vega, located in the shower's namesake constellation, Lyra. "Look for Lyra in the east a couple of hours after sunset," Samra says. "It looks like a parallelogram with a smaller triangle connected to one of the corners — the bright star Vega forms one of the tips of the triangle." The Lyrids' meteor trails will appear to radiate outward from Vega, he adds.
Some meteor watchers could be foiled by the moon, however, since it will be more than half-full and should rise around 1 a.m. local time. Its glare can obscure some of the Lyrids, Samra warns, but skygazers may improve their odds by avoiding other light sources. "As with all meteor showers, the best place to catch them is far away from all the light pollution surrounding cities," Samra says. "But if you can't get away, seek out a dark urban park and get your eyes dark-adapted. The process of dark adaptation can take up to a half hour and will result in many more meteors being visible."
The first Earth Day is held, underappreciated environmentalist Richard M. Nixon dies, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sinks, and more.
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Photo (Earth seen from the moon): NASA
Photo (baby chickens): U.S. Department of Agriculture
Photo (Chesapeake Energy gas well in Pa.): Ralph Wilson/AP
Photo (pelican flying over Louisiana coast): Gerald Herbert/AP
Image (painting of Lyrid meteor shower over Death Valley): NASA