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Earth Day 2014- A GreenWatch Report

Filed under: Activism, Environmental

by Jay Burney

Today is Earth Day 2014. Happy Earth Day.

Just FYI- the International Coalition that promotes Earth Day has decided that this year is the year of the Green City

Earth Day began in earnest in April of 1970 when thousands of events, then called “teach-ins” were held across the USA. I was a junior in High School and I remember talking to students about Rachael Carson and about the dangers of smoking tobacco.  One of the biggest first year Earth Day events was held in Fairmont Park in Philadelphia and was hosted by well known anti-war and ecological activist Ira Einhorn.  Speakers at that event included Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, Ralph Nader, and Allen Ginsberg.   Einhorns activism had focused environmental issues but he was better known for his view on Vietnam and the cold war. Among other things his work helped to expose the US governments experiments in psychotronics also known as parapsychology which was a big deal at the time.  Einhorns story did not end well. In 1977 he is said to have murdered his girlfriend Holly Maddox, put her body in a steamer trunk inside his apartment, and fled to Europe.  He became known as “The Unicorn Killer”.  The media carried the message that he had “composted” the body. In 1997 he was captured, and extradited to the US. He was represented by soon to be United States Senator, the iconoclastic republican, Arlen Spector.  Einhorn claimed that he was innocent, set up by his enemies including the CIA.  Not a totally unreasonable or unfathomable defense. His trial was held in 2002, the jury deliberated for two hours and he was convicted of the murder. Today he is serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania State Correctional facility.

Most of the world has forgotten the Ira Einhorn story. Most of the world recognizes Gaylord Nelson, the one time United States Senator from Wisconsin as the founder of Earth Day.  He was a consumer rights advocate, opposed the Vietnam war, supported civil rights, and a substantial conservation activist. H was instrumental in organizing and publicizing events that helped to establish Earth Day and the concerns for the environment as a national obsession.

By 1990 Earth Day issues had changed focus. Corporate messaging including an investment in Earth Day marketing by Hewlett-Packard, a substantial industrial polluter.  The Earth Day concept began to change away from a grass-roots ecological movement and toward corporate marketing strategies. Advertising and marketing around Earth Day became a toxic by-product of events and awareness and included group focus testing and the evolution of “green” marketing strategies that in reality have done little to change the way we make and distribute toxic products and their ultimate impact on the environment.  Green marketing has helped build wealth however. The greenwashing message works with consumers.

This is not all bad of course because there have been some businesses and business concepts that have become more friendly to the environment, because of the kind of awareness that has been stimulated by Earth Day awareness. Not enough though.  Too little too late.

Which brings me to the topic of cynicism.  It is easy to be a cynic. Especially on Earth Day. Many people that understand science say that humanity is facing extinction and that this could happen sooner rather than later. Issues such as anthropomorphic climate change are bringing it on with threats to the food supply, peace, and prosperity. Is there any hope?  It is easy to be a cynic.

A couple of baseline assumptions- Both nature and society are about change. Society tends to change slowly, and nature tends to change quickly.

We have been extraordinarily aware of the devastation of the environment by society since at least 1970. In these early years of Earth Day awareness our society was able to move quickly to address some of the issues. On a national level we created the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, and a wide variety of federal, state and local regulations and rules that attempted to control if not completely reduce societies impacts on the environment. This had everything to do with personal and individual investment in ideas, ideals, and strategies to both improve and save our own lives and political activism.  By 1990, with the impact of corporate marketing, this personal investment and activism began to reverse. Greenwashing gave us a sense that everything was all right, we just had to buy the right products and continue to support the economy. The economy has continued to grow substantially. Unfortunately and somewhat hidden is the fact that  “the economy” continues to measure growth by treating environment as an externality.  The growth of the economy has included the unmitigated growth of environmental destruction. In other words the costs to the environment remain external to the profits, and these cost are not borne directly by the profit-takers but are substantially borne by the majority of people on the earth in terms of disparity.  This is the 1% v. the 99% argument that almost survived the Occupy Wall Street movement of a few years back.

In January of this year, Oxfam International published a report “Working for the Few-Political Capture and Economic Inequality” in which they stated that 85 individuals control as much wealth as half of the people on the planet. It also says that in the US, the wealthiest 1% captured 95% of the post financial crisis while the bottom 90% have become poorer.

-The Guardian January 20, 2014:

This inequality has created to cynicism, despair and hopelessness. This has all led to a substantial lack of progress on issues central to Earth Day.

Is there any hope?  Here I relinquish my cynicism.  There remain substantial movements locally and nationally to improve our conditions. Its hard to say if more people are thinking about the environment but we have an increasing awareness of climate change and its consequences so this is hopeful. You may disagree but here are some issue we can act on.

Problem:  One of the biggest issues facing our region is the rapid decline of the water quality and the ecological conditions of Lake Erie.  This will quickly evolve and will impact every facet of life in WNY including our economic development capacity. Early this year the International Joint Commission, (IJC) the international organization that services the Boundary Waters Treaty between the US and Canada, issued a report that stated that the quality of water in Lake Erie is in rapid decline and that the Lake should be immediately declared “impaired” which would trigger a series of regulations focused on agricultural practices and urban sewers systems among other things.

We wrote about that here:

Besides increased toxics contamination including phosphorous which was the focus of the IJC report- last year a study found that plastics pollution in Lake Erie was as severe as in any waterbody on the planet. Concentrations in Lake Erie exceed what is found in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Great Lakes Echo- Toxic Chemicals turn up in Great Lakes Plastic pollution 4/09/13

Solutions: In March of this year a group called the Council of Canadians began to promote a project that describes a new way of governing the Great Lakes by creating a “commons” approach. This new strategy would encourage “citizens”  to find new ways to take back the governance of the lakes from government and the corporate interests that buy government influence.  The idea is to prioritize people and the environment over industry and commodification.

Our Great Lakes Commons:

They have a current focus on extreme energy including transportation of hazardous energy materials in the Great Lakes.

American partners of the Council of Canadians include Food and Water Watch, who have been very active in New York and in WNY on anti-fracking issues.

This spring new legislation has been introduced to the New York State Senate and Assembly to called the “Microbead-free Waters Act” which would ban microbeads from products including personal care products.

Locally groups like the Citizens Campaign for the Environment;  The Sierra Club the 5 Gyres Institute have been advocating this legislation.


Problem: City of Buffalo dumps 4 billion gallons of untreated sewerage into the Great Lakes.

According to a report by the Investigative Post’s and Dan Telvock published in October 2012, the City of Buffalo is responsible for dumping 4 billion gallons of untreated sewerage into the Niagara River and Lake Erie each year. The Buffalo Sewer Authority (BSA) was requited to submit a long term control plan to the EPA in 2001. They did not. In 2004 the EPA determined that Buffalo was violating the Clean Water Act.  Over the years the BSA submitted several plans that were rejected by the EPA.  Buffalo Niagara RiverKeeper became involved and authored a promising study on Green Sewer Infrastructure.   In 2012 the EPA brought legal action against the City. The BSA hired Julie Barrett O’Neil, formerly director of Buffalo Niagara RiverKeeper to help create the long term plan.

 Solutions: Early this month-April of 2014, the EPA, the State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Buffalo Sewer Authority came to an agreement and have adopted a long-term treatment plan for the City’s water.

Investigative Post: Big Victory for Buffalo water quality

It is too early to determine whether on not this plan will work, and efforts to communicate with city spokespersons and Buffalo Niagara RiverKeeper, which has been a public advocate for this plan, have been unsuccessful.

The Long Range Plan is an important step. Successful implementation,  and political support for the plan remain issues. Concerns include the cost, whom will pay for it, and how exactly it will be administered and managed. Can this be a model for other Great Lakes Cities? It will require vigilance and transparency.

Problem: Energy v. the Environment.

There are very few energy opportunities that are being discussed that do not have serious impacts on the environment. Some are much more egregious than others.  Any reliance on fossil fuels, including natural gas, have significant impact on anthropomorphic climate change and habitat. Both the release of carbon and methane as greenhouse gasses, and the loss of habitat and biodiversity created by infrastructure development are significant problems that may have catastrophic consequences.  The Showtime television series “Years of Living Dangerously” has told the world that fully 20% of all emission greenhouse gas emission are coming from deforestation, more than the emissions from all the transportation activities on the globe.  Clearly energy infrastructure from all forms of energy and energy supported development results in habitat loss.  If we are to get serious about climate change we have to address habitat loss.

Solutions: Until April 30 we have an opportunity to comment on the New York State Energy Plan that will shape our economic and environmental future for generations to come. This is a piece that I wrote recently for the Buffalo News:

Here is the link to the NYS Energy Plan and its comment page:


Are there alternatives to cynicism?

Yes and we have some examples. It would not be a bad idea to learn about these.

-Janine Benyus author of Biomimicry, says that we can model development including product development on ecological systems. We wrote about this here: “From me to We”

-EcoMind author Francis Moore Lappe says that we can think of things differently and that our mind is full of thought challenges that prohibit creativity and solution finding.

Annie Leonard, founder and producer of the Story of Stuff, who visited Buffalo early this year says that we have to find our way to be citizens and we have forgotten how to make changes:

Last year I wrote about how we should not be corporate shills celebrating Earth Day.  Instead we could be working hard to make sure every day is Earth Day and that our personal activism cannot rest in the face of the onslaught of what is coming for us and for future generations, should we be so lucky or as skilled as to have future generations. I wrote about how anti-fracking activist Sandra Steingrabber was currently in Chemung County jail for her activism and how we should consider our personal strategies.  I also said that we should be about making all pollution illegal, period. In the last year, not much has changed.

But change is ineviatable. the questions are can we make change that is proactive and benefits humanity, or will we continue to slough through the muck and mire that some serious scientists are calling the end times.  (Guy McPherson, Nature Bats Last)

Biomimicry, among other things may make a future possible. The EcoMind may help us find ways to think this through.  Annie Leonard  and the Council of Canadians may help us to rediscover our activism, participation,  and personal commitment strategies.

The big picture of human survivability and thrivability rests almost entirely on how we understand and promote economy.  In the lexicon of sustainability, which connects economy, environment and culture, the environment is always the bottom line. In the real world the economy always comes first, second and third. This makes “sustainable development” a complete oxymoron.

That said-cynicism is a self-defeating prophecy.  I get up every day with the concept that this is a good time to be alive. We can make a difference individually and collectively if we put our eco-minds to it.  It is hard to characterize that difference, but if it rests on what is in your heart and mind, if you can find a germ of hope for the future, reach in and reach out.  Pardon me if I have a healthy dose of pessimism. But-my personal optimism comes from the belief that humans are designed to solve problems.  Of course I could be totally wrong about that.