Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Giving thanks for Earth Day

Earth Day reminds me of Thanksgiving: each is a day set aside to count our blessings and contemplate the bounty, the beauty of our relationship to the natural environment, our responsibilities to it and to each other. Unlike other observations, the celebration and recognition of each of these days transcends political party, religious affiliation and any other lines that might divide us. And neither day has been crassly commercialized with a shopping season or emphasis on expensive gift-giving or getting.

Gaylord Nelson, the late senator from Wisconsin, is credited with organizing the first Earth Day in 1970. After witnessing the aftermath of the devastating oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel, the long-time environmentalist, was inspired to organize “teach-ins” to raise awareness about ecological concerns. Mass gatherings in Washington, D.C., and New York City, as well as smaller events around the country, marked that first observance, which American Heritage Magazine termed, “One of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy.”
“Teach-ins” are long-gone, but Earth Day remains, stronger than ever.
Santa Barbara’s annual Earth Day celebration, sponsored by the Community Environmental Council, will be held at the Courthouse Sunken Gardens this Sunday. A festive and colorful gathering of worthy nonprofits, environmentally-oriented educational institutions, and the inevitable tie-dye and hemp clothing entrepreneurs, as well as a green car show, and Art From Scrap activities for kids means there’s something for everyone on display in our community’s beautiful green gathering place.
I decided to get into the earth-loving spirit early by taking the official Earth Day “Ecological Footprint Quiz,” at The series of 27 questions are designed to evaluate average per capita consumption in four man categories: carbon (including home energy use and transportation), food, housing and goods and services.
The whole point of the exercise is to raise individual awareness that small lifestyle changes make a big difference. By now, we’ve all got the message that cloth bags are better than paper or plastic; that filling Nalgene bottles with water will save the landfills; that the installation of compact fluorescent light bulbs saves energy; and that walking is good for body, soul and the planet, too.
The quiz also offers a reminder of how far our culture has drifted away from the simplicity and resourcefulness prized by our forebears. In today’s terms, my dear Sicilian grandparents, transplanted to Southern California, were model environmentalists: They owned a modest older home with a cottage in the back, which they always rented at below market rate to one hard-luck case after another. They adhered to the Mediterranean diet long before it was fashionable, with just a bit of meat, and mostly fruits and vegetables that they grew in their own backyard, seasoned with herbs, greens and olive oil. What they couldn’t consume—from persimmons to avocados—they gave away to neighbors and friends.
They re-used their aluminum foil, walked or took the bus to neighborhood markets or on trips downtown; they washed their dishes by hand, dried their clothes on the clothesline and wore a sweater in the house to keep the thermostat low; they made sun tea in the back yard, composted everything and wasted nothing. And both of them always reminded us to “shut the lights.”
In short, there was a time—not so long-ago — when the behavior of common citizens resulted in far fewer impacts on the planet than the way we typically live today. It wasn’t called a lifestyle; it just the way people lived. Today, there seems no end to the number of goods available for consumption: the electric ice-tea machine, electric quesadilla maker and electric baby wipe-warmer have all made their way onto the shelves, and presumably into the home. Out-of-season food is transported from a continent away, and we knock down buildings without considering—or compensating for—the embodied energy contained within.
Similarly, community standards mean we’re often discouraged from, or unable to pursue, more environmentally sensitive lives.
Some neighborhoods maintain CCR’s that actually prevent residents from installing a clothesline; the highly touted, high-density condominium developments do not feature—and have not been required to include—such obvious environmental assets as solar components, a space set aside for a community vegetable garden, or cross-ventilation rather than air conditioning. Unaccountably, even our own city’s ban on gas-powered leaf blowers goes ignored and un-enforced.
Earth Day is a good time to reconsider our heritage, our choices and our responsibility to tread lightly, leaving a small footprint, on the green and blue place we call home. It’s a priceless gift that leaves a lasting impression.
Cheri Rae’s column appears every Thursday in the Daily Sound. E-mail her at

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