I remember the first Earth Day.
Not the details of it, not after 51 years, but the sense of it. There was a genuine frisson of excitement back in 1970 that the Earth would have a day devoted to it and to its protection. There were marches and rallies and projects, and alliances between people that crossed geographic, demographic and political lines.
That feeling carried over for me the following year as I did my Eagle Scout project.
I gathered a group of family, friends and fellow Scouts to clean up part of a river in the New Haven, Connecticut area. Wearing wading boots and gloves, and using a canoe at some points, we pulled a bunch of garbage out of the marshy reeds that lined the river.
There were all sorts of paper and plastic products, tires and metal objects, even a washing machine. And as much as it felt good to cart all that stuff away, and to realize that similar endeavors were taking place all over the country, it was equally aggravating to realize how many people had been treating that secluded stretch of river and other places all over the country as a dump.
A half-century later, Earth Day's participants worldwide number in the hundreds of millions. But as April 22 approaches anew, it doesn't seem to generate the same feeling, the same palpable thrill, for many people. It seems more like just another day on the calendar, certainly not an inspiration for the rest of the year.
And that's a shame. Because we need the spirit of Earth Day as much now as we ever did. We cannot afford it becoming one of those superficial holidays, something you approach with a sense of duty rather than an eager embrace of urgency. It's not an item on a list to check off. Earth Day, done.
Nor are we meeting our responsibility if that's the only day we choose to do something to help the planet. Forget about Earth Day, we need Earth Year. Every year. Imagine how much we could accomplish if we spent as much time caring for the planet we call home as we do for the structures we call home.
That's not to say a lot hasn't been done. Progress has been immense. Earth Day and the movement that spawned it also created the Environmental Protection Agency and helped pass trail-breaking environmental laws that have led to cleaner air and water, restrictions on pesticides and other toxic substances, and protections for endangered species, among other things. Progress hasn't been perfect, of course, but it is ongoing.
More to the point — here's where worries about ennui come in — there is still so much to do.
On Long Island, we're still dealing with legacy pollution of our groundwater and with air that's dirtied by traffic and by particulates, some from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. And, of course, with rising seas.
California is looking at another record year for forest fires, storms everywhere keep getting worse, plastic is accumulating in our oceans and landfills, and millions of people worldwide have been displaced by climate change. Google Earth just released a new feature of its Timelapse tool that offers satellite views of Earth's degradation from 1984 to 2020, like deforestation in the Amazon and receding glaciers in Alaska.
The urgency is real. Environmentalists are still fighting the fight. We can help.
We can use less plastic, and recycle more. Drive less and more conservatively, and use bikes and mass transit more. We can plant trees and shrubs, and turn off our lights and appliances when we're not using them.
And we can do that every day. Let Earth Day be just the start.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.