Earth Day: Moving Beyond Recycling, Bringing Deeper Change
by Dr. Catherine Owen Koning

Professor Catherine Owen KoningThese days, many people talk about environmental issues and the importance of taking some action, from recycling to land protection. If "every day is Earth Day," then what is the importance of that one calendar day, April 22?

For me, the question has great personal significance. It was on the second Earth Day, when I was in fifth grade (no, don't do the math!), that I determined my life's work. Mrs. Hurwitz celebrated the event by taking our class to Long Island Sound, where she and her husband donned wetsuits and pulled a seine through the water. Having spent every summer of my young life playing around the beaches of Long Island, I thought I was familiar with its coastal denizens, but no: The creatures that came out of that net might have come from another planet, for all I knew of them. Fish, crabs, starfish, sea urchins, worms - they left me dumbfounded, and hooked on nature.

And it wasn't just the field trip, it was the connection to a grassroots movement to protect the natural world, that captured my interest so powerfully. I was horrified to learn that this world I loved so much was being bathed in sewage, acid rain and toxic waste - and thrilled to hear about courageous people like Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring is often cited as launching the modern environmental movement. Love, devastation, salvation, presented in one short week of school. My little story certainly shows the power of one teacher, one event, one lesson, to shape a life.

Ecology was a new word in 1970. By the time I went to college, Long Island Sound was dying, yet Environmental Science as a field of study barely existed. Now, it is everywhere. Recycling is required or encouraged in most towns, and more recently, energy conservation and alternative energy are on everyone's minds every day - even New Hampshire politicians are talking about it. So, do we still need to celebrate Earth Day?

Earth day began in 1970 as a teach-in; educators played a critical role. In my early teaching career as a teacher, Earth Day was a big event, but more recently, as a Professor of Environmental Science, I took the view that so much of my energy was already devoted to solving environmental problems; I had no time left to for frivolous celebrations. The ECO Club usually put on some Earth Day events at Spring Weekend, but we rarely went beyond that. But recently, my ideas have changed.

At Franklin Pierce, President George Hagerty celebrated the institution's transition to University status by signing the American College and University President's Climate Commitment, which now has 515 signatories. By virtue of this commitment, Franklin Pierce will reduce its greenhouse gases as much as possible, and will participate in carbon offset projects to neutralize its unavoidable impacts.

My awakening comes after a year-long sabbatical, and an influx of eager and excited students, seeking direction. Whether it is Al Gore's achievements, or the war in Iraq, or the building evidence for human-caused climate change, the tide of mass interest seems to be turning. More locally, towns like Peterborough and Keene are taking serious action to protect wildlife habitat, prevent deterioration of water quality, and conserve energy. At Franklin Pierce, President George Hagerty celebrated the institution's transition to University status by signing the American College and University President's Climate Commitment, which now has 515 signatories. By virtue of this commitment, Franklin Pierce will reduce its greenhouse gases as much as possible, and will participate in carbon offset projects to "neutralize" its unavoidable impacts.

Already, this has made a huge difference on our Rindge campus, and our satellite campuses - now international - are scheduled to follow suit. From wood biomass boilers, to energy-miser vending machines, to our first "green" certified building and carbon-footprint based targets for solid waste reduction and energy conservation, our Sustainability Council is devising a bold plan of action for the next five years.

But, despite many "green" efforts and achievements over the last decade, we have only begun this journey. An enormous amount of work still lies ahead. Those of us who recycle religiously, use only compact fluorescent light bulbs, and buy organic, may feel pretty superior, but we are in danger of promoting what philosopher Arne Naess ridiculed as "shallow ecology" - ideas that do not address our core values and fail to promote the fundamental changes in personal and community norms needed to achieve true sustainability - the philosophy of "deep ecology".

Pearly Pond sunrise on campusEarth Day can push us into - some might say over! - this philosophical deep end. Taking a day to seek out new ideas and new actions may lead us to thinkers like ecologist Tom Wessels, who can enlighten us about the inherently unsustainable underpinnings of our society. His book, The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future, clearly demonstrates how our growth-based economic and social systems conflict with the most fundamental laws of science. Wessels' book is one of the best on sustainability. Another that deserves an intense reading is Jim Merkel's Radical Simplicity. Merkel's book gives you the tools to transform your personal lifestyle into a more sustainable one, and, in a completely non-judgmental way, helps you understand on a personal level the difference between deep and shallow ecology.

Our students, whether they are Environmental Science majors or not, know that we can go deeper, and they want to get involved. Earth Day is a vehicle for them to learn, to showcase their own actions and discoveries, to make plans for the future, and to celebrate. While our students, as well as younger students, grew up on Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel, do seem to be more savvy than I was at 10 years old, they often lack any deep connection to nature or meaningful understanding of the unimaginable threats it faces, and certainly they have not comprehended the profound changes that will be required to address those threats.

Neither have most adults. Without Earth Day, they might continue on, blithely playing in the shallow end. Now's the time to take a dive into something deeper.

Yes, every day must be Earth Day, but some well-designed events on or around April 22, the actual Earth Day, will go a long way to celebrating achievement, discussing ways to build on those achievements, and to capturing the hearts and imaginations of the next generation. Without it, where would I be? Where would any of us be?

Franklin Pierce University celebrated Earth Day with movies, speakers, a campaign to reduce food waste in the cafeteria, and an "Amphibian Night Walk". Many of these events were open to the public.