Picture of Kathryn Gilje

Kathryn Gilje

Earth Day – thinking back & looking forward

At Pesticide Action Network, we mark Earth Day by reflecting on the work handed to us by our predecessors. We take stock of their predictions for our world, and pull lessons for moving forward.

I am reminded, in particular, of Rachel Carson's articulate science and clarion call on pesticides in Silent Spring. Of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and how their very first contracts demanded the decreased use of pesticides. Of farmers and eaters who have grown and harvested foods for millenia while protecting biodiversity and our earth. And of my own populist, upper Midwest heritage, and how the Wisconsinite Earth Day founders mobilized broad and diverse support for stewardship, 20 million strong in 1970, that led to some of the most important policies that safeguard our collective nest.

According to the Earth Day Network,

Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. 'It was a gamble,' Gaylord recalled, 'but it worked.'

Today's challenges loom large

Yesterday's news certainly brought home, once again, the predictions of our predecessors: Three independent studies show that pre-natal pesticide exposure leads to lower IQ in kids. The same pesticides are linked to ADHD. These pesticides are pushed by Dow and other pesticide corporations, are widely used in industrial agriculture, and are on our food. These findings build on a figurative mountain of well-established science showing the health and ecological harms of pesticides: learning and developmental disorders, Parkinson's Disease, childhood cancers, reproductive harm.

We stand on the precipice of biodiversity collapse, with species dying off at over 1,000 times the normal background rate. Pollinators and other indicator species such as frogs, are suffering dramatic declines. Not since the dinosaurs disappeared has our planet seen this kind of species collapse.

Today, scientists in every corner of the world are documenting the health and ecological harms of pesticides. Yet today, in contrast to widespread mobilization, we are even more polarized, it seems. We face a well-resourced corporate gaggle bent on seeding division and fracture, and on protecting pesticide industry profits from ordinary American acts of democracy.

CropLife, the marketing association for Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and all pesticide corporations, says that creating loopholes for pesticides in the common-sense rules that protect our natural resources is top of their agenda for 2011 congressional budget cuts and rulemaking. Their specific targets: the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the ways that pesticides are allowed into the air.

Hopeful, powerful lessons

Three lessons I pull from Earth Day 1970 as we work for safe, green and fair food systems today:

  • Stewardship of our environment is a widely shared value. We shouldn't allow this reality to be undermined  by divisive politics, our own stereotypes or powerful corporate PR campaigns. Fundamentally, the economy needs the environment, and solutions that truly provide for people and the earth exist. Just last month, for example, another global study found that widespread uptake of agroecology (the science behind organic and sustainable agriculture) could double food production in 10 years, and address climate change and poverty, too.
  • We need celebration, and heroes. Luckily we are long on heroes, because in just about every community on earth, you will find women and men, young people and elders who are growing food while stewarding the earth, and who meld economic prosperity with environmental sustainability.
  • Change requires mass mobilization. We must act, and we most join together. This is as true today as it was in 1970, perhaps even moreso. 

This final lesson is where I am most heartened. Despite our apparent polarization, new food movements are afoot like never before, and they are particularly unified and strong amongst our youth. Examples are many: students organized into the Real Food Challenge, who don't buy for one minute the PR spin that we need junk food to feed the world. Young organizers  in frontline communities across the country, like Luis Medellin, who don't agree that constant toxic chemical exposure is needed for healthy economic growth. And the young people connected through Live Real, who are building local & healthy food economies without pesticides in cities, towns and rural communities across the nation.

I encourage all of us to join with these young people, and take up this invitation for engagement from the Earth Day founders themselves:

We invite you to be a part of Earth Day and help write many more victories and successes into our history. Discover energy you didn't even know you had. Feel it rumble through the grassroots under your feet and the technology at your fingertips. Channel it into building a clean, healthy, diverse world for generations to come.

Picture of Kathryn Gilje

Kathryn Gilje

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