On the first Earth Day, Wednesday, April 22, 1970, I slipped out of my house at 4 a.m. and hurried to the next street where my good friend Kathy Dawson was waiting for me at the door of her house. We were chilly in our school uniforms — navy blue wool blazers and skirts — as we began our thirteen-mile trek to our high school, Mt. Carmel Academy, where we were seniors. We soon left the comfort of Derby’s streetlights, crossing into the darkness of fields and pastures. We trudged in the ditch along Rock Road, passing the chain-link fences of McConnell Air Force Base. We picked up our pace as we reached Eastgate Shopping Center in Wichita. Traffic was getting heavier. There was nowhere to walk. What were we thinking? This was no fun. Four hours after starting, we finally reached school just as the first bell rang. We hustled to our desks, exhausted but satisfied. We wanted to save gasoline for just one day to show our concern for the environment, although we did catch a ride home with our regular carpool. We realized how limited our lives would be without cars and how our lives were not set up for walking or biking, but we were already living fairly frugal lives because of the way we were raised.
Our parents lived through the Depression and World War II rationing. Frugality was second nature to them. They slowly and cautiously accumulated the comforts of technology and abundance. The baby boomers left that caution and frugality behind. On average, we had smaller families, but built bigger homes with all of the trimmings. Our expectations grew. We sought frequent vacations far more exotic than those old driving trips to Grandma’s house. Cheap energy, an explosion in innovation and far-off labor created thousands of new gadgets that soon became a necessity — we recorded our children’s every move, cell phones for everyone, televisions with a hundred channels in almost every room. Computers gave us instant access to the world. Food arrived from all over the globe in every season. Will we change? We don’t even know how to do to make much of a difference. (See the link to “Why Bother?” above.) It’s possible, but it won’t be easy.
We have to get back to the spirit of the first Earth Day. Appreciating the simple. Understanding the long-term consequences of our choices. Acknowledging and respecting what the earth gives to us. It’s the only planet we have.
Will I walk again rather drive to my destination on Earth Day this year? Unlikely. I live in suburbia, at least a couple of miles from everywhere I usually visit. I’m dependent on a car. Biking in the traffic isn’t safe, as least not for a scaredy cat like me. In the heart of cities I’ve walked almost everywhere –Chicago, New York, Boston — I do love walking. It was great to have everything so close — for a while. Then I tired of walking in the rain, hauling groceries a couple of miles, not knowing how to transport anything large. I was happy to leave the noise and the congestion behind. My car seems like freedom, but I’m trapped by it, too. As gasoline costs climb higher again, I’m being even more careful about the trips I take. There’s no public transportation in my neighborhood, and won’t be until people are desperate for it and demand it.
One really important thing we suburbanites can do, as Michael Pollan (“Why Bother?) suggests, is turn part of our suburban lawns into gardens, which is what we’ve gradually been doing. More on that later. (In memory of Kathy. I still miss her so much.)
“Why Bother?” is a link to a story in the New York Times by Michael Pollan.