Another Earth Day

By Marion Harless

         Wisconsin’s Senator Gaylord Nelson thought it would be wonderful to have a student led teach-in on the environment at the nation’s colleges and universities.  He put together a packet of environmental information and organizational aspects, made it available to interested schools and named Dennis Hayes as his lead student.  Dennis is still working at it.

         At the time I was teaching at a small Texas state university and promptly wrote off to Washington for a packet which arrived in short order.  After reading the materials, I asked Tom whose last name was maybe Chamberlain to head up the project.  He approached the university president who approved what he also thought was a good idea.  He appointed Art Byer, biology professor, as a sort of honorary faculty sponsor, but students did all the organizing.

         When the beautiful April day arrived our 8, 9, and 10 o’clock classes met as usual.  Then at 11 o’clock the entire campus community and many local residents met on the grassy quadrangle to hear the inspiring main speakers — none of whom I can recall.

         At one o’clock faculty panels and discussions were held, in classrooms across the campus.  I do remember that Richard Williams (mathematics), Jesse Rogers (chemistry), and I (physiology) held forth for an hour and a half.  In conclusion I informed the group of the number of acres of tropical rainforest destroyed while our roomful of people had been talking.

         The following day most classes had students who continued with questions and comments.  In one of my classes I remember Brenda Hardy asking, “Miss Harless, how long do we humans have to change our behavior?”  (We were very formal in those days!) Long pause.  I answered, “Ten years.  Fifteen, at the most.”  I have never seen a reason to change that gloomy estimate.

         Today it would be more than a full-time job just to keep up with the daily revelations of worldwide ecological destruction.

         We know, for example, the following:

  • Except for those swimming right around Antarctica, all the fish on the planet contain micro plastics.
  • Treadwear dust settles from the bottom of the deepest oceans all the way to the peaks of the highest mountains.
  • Glitter, whether plastic and/or metal is also everywhere.  Whatever goes on the ground eventually ends up in the water.  Glitter sticks to everything but not for very long.  Glitter is not removed at wastewater treatment plants and is deposited in the world’s waters.
  • Chemicals from laundered so-called “fleece” made from plastic bottles also flow along with water. Accumulated in patches on the oceans’ surfaces, the chemicals give off the same odor as that which comes from plankton that skimming sea birds feed upon, to the birds’ detriment.  And no nourishment.
  • Today petrochemical plastics, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers are part of most living organisms inhabiting this fragile planet.
  • Endocrine disruptors from fracked gas wells, compressor stations, soft plastics of every ilk, and discarded and excreted medications interfere with the psychology of virtually all animals.  Reduced sperm counts are among the reproductive errors and failures.
  • Emanations way smaller than micro plastics or even nano plastics pass through glass, the blood-brain barrier and the placental barrier.

         Another memorable moment from what came to be called “the First Earth Day” is how pleased I felt as I looked around the mass gathering.  When I looked just beyond the periphery I shivered in disbelief.  There they were.  Dark suits and fedoras.  Why in the world would they be watching people gathered to hear about the environment?

         When those super-incongruously dressed figures appeared atop Elizabeth Moore Hall and other vantage points overlooking earlier peace demonstrations at WVU, those of us who noticed the men wondered why the watchers were at their stations.  We half-jokingly speculated.  Were they CIA?  FBI?  

            From time to time over the decades I have wondered about the identity of the watchers.  After Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California I decided that oil companies run the world.  That conclusion was perhaps primed by childhood exposure to cartoon character Daddy Warbucks, later reinforced by President Eisenhower’s admonitions about the military-industrial complex, and confirmed in countless research and news articles.  Maybe the watchers are employees of petrochemical enterprises.

            Meanwhile with April come Arbor Day and Earth Day.  I still plant trees, including shagbark hickories, which may take fifty years to produce nuts.  Plant trees.  Read Doug Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope.  Then follow his pleas to plant native trees.  Happy Arbor Day.  Happy Earth Day.

Note:  This article first appeared in the April issue of The Highlands Voice.  The last two paragraphs were omitted.  Since the last two paragraphs are most understandable in the context of the whole piece, the whole article appears again.