I was supposed to write an article generating excitement about USM’s Earth Day celebrations. I poked around on the Internet looking for some inspiring Earth Day tidbits to share. Oddly, and perhaps appropriately, given the current state of the environment, the first few sites I looked at were not uplifting and celebratory.

First came environmental activist Donella Meadows’s reflection on Earth Day 2000, the 30th anniversary of the original event. She writes: “If, in the 30 Earth Day celebrations we have held since 1970, the human population and economy have become any more respectful of the Earth, the Earth hasn’t noticed … Earth Day is beginning to remind me of Mother’s Day, a commercial occasion upon which you buy flowers for the person who, every other day of the year, cleans up after you.”

This was hardly what I was looking for in the way of inspiration.

Next I saw a link to the “History of the First Earth Day.” That sounded more promising. The first Earth Day, I read, was March 20, 1970, the day of the vernal equinox. Peace activist and environmentalist John McConnell first proposed this day at a UNESCO conference in 1969.

Two days every year, the rotation of the earth causes day and night to be of roughly equal length all around the world. This symmetry of light and dark has been intriguing the people of the world for centuries. Even the ancient Egyptian Sphinx is positioned to look enigmatically into the rising sun on the morning of the vernal equinox, although, to be fair, no one is entirely sure if this was intentional. Religious and secular celebrations from Easter to harvest festivals are tied to the timing of the equinoxes. They are truly global phenomena, transcending local politics, weather, and religion–a perfect choice for an international Earth Day.

But wait, the spring equinox in the north (and the fall equinox in the south) is around March 20. Earth Day is April 22. What happened?

Well, the equinox Earth Day was celebrated in San Francisco in 1970 by the United Nations, which to this day holds events on March 20 or 21. Marking Earth Day on April 22 was the invention of former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson. The celebrations he inspired started in 1970 and attracted 20 million participants around the country the first year alone. April 22 quickly gained an unstoppable momentum as the day of choice.

I could not find any concrete information on why he picked that date, but some people pointed out that for most North American residents (but by no means most people worldwide), the weather is better in April than in March. A fair justification? Perhaps, but I liked the idea of the equinox.

Still not feeling inspired, I decided to stop reading and start thinking about what USM’s celebration meant for USM. Earth Day, like any other celebration, is complex. Of course it has political and commercial aspects. Of course Earth Day events are not going to save the planet by themselves. But they are one small, local, and important step in the right direction.

At USM next week, among a number of events marking Earth Day, children will learn to make art from materials that would otherwise be discarded. Students from the criminology program will raise money for the Brazilian rainforest. Others will put up posters on areas of concern to them. Trees will be planted in Gorham. Richard Barringer, research professor at the Muskie School of Public Policy, will share his thoughts from decades of working on sustainability issues in Maine (see below for a full listing of events).

A lot of people at USM have all contributed time and passion to putting these events together. Notably there is Reny Juita, USM’s student recycling coordinator; Jeanna LeClerc and the Environmental Science and Policy Student Group; Sandra Wachholz, assistant professor of criminology, and her students; Dudley Greeley, environmental and economic sustainability coordinator; Brett Hallett, buildings and grounds maintenance worker and recycling coordinator at Facilities Management; and many other students, faculty, and staff. Part of what we celebrate is their energy and dedication.

Earth Day has, at least in part, lived up to its global promise to help bridge national boundaries and achieve the shared goal of protecting the planet. A quick search turned up evidence of Earth Day activities last year in over 50 countries, including Iran, Syria and Jordan.

As we participate this year, we might keep Donella Meadows’s words in mind. From the Earth’s perspective, many things are getting steadily worse. The point of Earth Day is not for us to send a card saying, “We love you, Earth,” and then go back to life as usual. The day is for us to think seriously about making a real difference, as are all of the folks contributing to this year’s Earth Day at USM.

Events during the week of Earth Day

Monday, April 21

10 a.m., Gorham: Dumpster Dive [Find out how much reusable material is being discarded daily. Last year’s dive turned up new shoes and money, along with many other things!]

Tuesday, April 22: All events are will be in Portland at the Woodbury Campus Center.

10 a.m.: Dumpster Dive [outside campus center]

10 a.m. to 2 p.m.: Jazz Band

11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.: Criminology Student Association table to raise money for the Brazilian rainforest

3 p.m.: Bring your kids for a fun art activity made from “rescued” materials

Student Poster Session on environmental topics

Environmental Science and Policy Student Group table

Pagan Students Association table

Earth Day offerings in the dining hall

Thursday, April 24

Richard Barringer, research professor at the Muskie School of Public Service, will talk about sustainability issues on WMPG’s Big Talk at 7:30 p.m.

Contact Reny Juita, Student Recycling Coordinator, for more information about these events: [email protected], 780-4962.


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