By Jessica Mast
Words from a friend’s grandfather can be disheartening but somehow utterly hilarious at the same time: “What is the big deal with Earth Day? The Earth has been around for millions of years.” My first response to this scalding Facebook status sound bite was alarm; I was taken aback by how irreverent this old man could be about the home we share. But soon after the initial shock, I could not help but laugh at the honesty and hidden wisdom behind this question.
Perhaps this grandpa’s question is a prophetic one for us who automatically and inherently feel a love for Earth Day. The question is not whether Earth Day is important, but how Earth Day is important to our time and place, to Fresno in 2010. The earth has indeed been around for millions of years, but it will take a sense of renewal to give Earth Day some larger meaning, to our time and place. It seems the story of Fresno Earth Day 2010 is a story with this idea of renewal at its heart. Renewal means the relationship has never been lost but simply needs to be continually rediscovered.
The story starts with America’s first Earth Day, a vision manifested in 1970 by the support and grassroots activism of communities all over the states. Gaylord Nelson, then a senator from Wisconsin, first began dreaming of a national Earth Day in 1962, with the stirrings of a call to “put the environment into the political ‘limelight’ once and for all,” as he reminisces in a 2010 EnviroLink article.
Troubled by the environment as essentially a non-issue in the political sphere, Nelson drew on the powerful tactics of anti–Vietnam War demonstrators, with teach-ins staged at universities across the country energizing the hearts and minds of both people and politicians. He began to get creative, wondering what would happen if the passion and energy of the student antiwar movement were channeled into a huge grassroots protest over the treatment of the earth?
The first public call for the public’s involvement in an upcoming Earth Day was in 1968, and the response was overwhelmingly positive and zealous from the American people. The opportunity to organize around caring for the nation’s land, rivers, lakes and air was received with what Nelson describes as a “spectacular exuberance.” There was a renewal of love for the environment like the nation had never seen before, a renewal that started with the vision of a politician but was brought to vibrant life by the efforts of grassroots communities.
One community was that of Fresno, with Dick Haas at the forefront of the movement. This professor emeritus of Fresno State’s biology department heard Nelson’s call and decided to answer boldly, with much of Fresno and the surrounding area rallying behind this renewal of ecological consciousness. Haas speaks of air and water pollution and population growth as the hot-button issues for Earth Day 1970, issues that he had been interested in since his days of undergraduate discovery at UCLA.
For this Fresno activist, it was an encounter in his undergraduate study that set him on the path to environmental justice. A favorite professor from Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) opened Haas’s mind to the global scope of environmental concerns, with stories of a childhood spent in a village where population growth meant overuse of the land, and a lack of sustainability meant catastrophe for the people of the land. This course in human ecology was a look into the future for Haas, a challenge to envision himself in the role of impacting professor, speaking for the rights of the earth and the people of this earth.
Haas sees the need for Earth Day now as much as he did when the movement was brand new. Although the issues at hand have changed, the call to care for the earth remains. He points to water issues and climate change as crucial now in Fresno’s eco-consciousness, convinced that climate change is “probably the most serious problem facing mankind in the coming age.” But through the change, his hope is that something has remained constant. With all his years of activism and teaching, he hopes to have made an impact. With his former students now teaching other students and carrying Haas’s wisdom into their own classroom, the journey to sustainability is ongoing.
This is where Fresno Earth Day 2010 steps in, eager to continue the journey fueled by people like Haas and confident that a renewal of our city’s connection to the earth is indeed possible. This year’s Fresno Earth Day, on April 24, is built on a relationship between three surprising partners—the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, a class from Fresno Pacific University (FPU) and GreenFresno.org, an online resource for eco-living in the Central Valley.
The UU Church had hosted an Earth Day celebration last year and had wished for more of Fresno to experience the challenge and beauty of the day once again; the FPU class, Theological Ethics and the Environment, seeks to integrate what we believe with how we love our earth; and Tom Cotter of GreenFresno.org became the connecting piece between the two. As an adjunct professor with FPU, Cotter empowered the class to organize Fresno Earth Day 2010, and in the process ended up joining with the UU church in the same pursuit. These two groups organized around the same goal have found their energies strengthened when integrated.
Connie Young of the UU group speaks of the collaboration as what makes this year’s event so special: “The things we are learning about working together and building a relationship are exactly what needs to happen around the world if we’re going to solve the problems of climate change.” Giving the FPU students room to practice their wisdom not just inside the classroom walls, the hospitality of the UU Church invites this relationship that Young sees as so crucial; Earth Day at its heart has become not only about the Earth but about people working for the good of the earth in the community.
Fresno Earth Day 2010 is set for April 24, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the UU Church on Alluvial Avenue between Chestnut and Willow avenues. The event is free and open to the public of all ages. Planned are practical workshops that will leave participants empowered and creative, rather than overwhelmed with the scope of the problem.
The day is constructed for every type of learner—with speakers, tours, workshops and exhibits, films, live music, a green car show and tasty local food. The workshops will provide information and insight into how Fresno residents can be directly involved in making our home community a greener place to live, work and play. Organic gardening, making “green” gifts, bicycling, vegetarian cooking, paper making, composting, voluntary simplicity and explaining climate change to others are some of the options to help you dig deeper into being part of the solution.
So what is the big deal with Earth Day? It is important beyond even the importance of the earth. Fresno Earth Day 2010 is about relationship and community, and a renewal of the vision started in 1970 and manifested by Dick Haas in our own city. The big deal with Earth Day is that there is still a need for Earth Day each year, a chance to remind ourselves why we choose to care so much. And the big deal with Earth Day is that it did not start with us and will not end with us.
Young says of the earth, “We can and must do a better job of caring for it so it will be able to sustain us and future generations. As a parent, I am more than happy to live more simply, so that my children and children around the world may have clean water, clean air and beautiful natural places to live and roam.”
Haas echoes her sentiment when he recollects how his professor inspired his eco sensibilities decades ago and how he, in turn, inspired others’ in the decades that followed. So he asks: Where we will be in 50 years? How do we keep deepening our connection to the earth and deepening our commitment to become part of the solution?
The challenge of Earth Day is a continued renewal, to perpetually renew our sense of connection, to keep the relationship dynamic and forward-moving so that days and weeks and generations down the road there is already in place the hope for a renewal again. Fresno Earth Day 2010 is one small but beautiful renewal in this journey.
For more information about Fresno Earth Day 2010, contact Tom Cotter at 559-457-8110 or the UU Church of Fresno at 559-322-6146, or visit www.GreenFresno.org.