Viewpoint: Youth are guiding us forward

By Steve Katona


This morning is cool, rainy and gray, but flocks of robins and a gobbling tom turkey announce their belief that spring is finally here. Snowdrops and the first tips of crocuses and tulips think so too. All over the northern hemisphere, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais, Jains, Zoroastrians, Native Americans, Wiccans and people of no religion at all celebrate spring’s renewal of life with reflection, prayer, food, dance, song and color.

It is no accident Earth Day is also celebrated in spring. In 1969 at a UNESCO conference in San Francisco, peace activist John McConnell proposed that the first day of northern spring, March 21, be used to celebrate Earth’s life, beauty and the concept of peace. 36 world leaders, including UN Secretary General U Thant signed an Earth Day Proclamation, and since 1970 the UN has celebrated Earth Day on that date by ringing a peace bell and displaying the Earth Day Flag that McConnell designed.

Inspired by the UN Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin) created the first US Earth Day, which was celebrated on April 22, 1970, with a national teach-in on the environment.

Sen. Nelson’s stated goal was to “get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and finally force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.” Supported by Congressman Pete McCloskey (R-California) and organized by Harvard graduate student Denis Hayes, 20 million Americans of all ages, beliefs and political affiliations participated, consolidating their concerns about the Vietnam War, air and water pollution and wildlife deaths from pesticides into an environmental movement. Results were dramatic.

By year end, Republican President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order. Major legislation followed quickly. Senator Ed Muskie (D-Maine) introduced the Clean Water Act which passed the Senate unanimously and overcame a presidential veto to become law in 1972.

That same year, EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus announced his decision to ban DDT and President Nixon signed into law the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act; Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 1973 saw enactment of the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). 1974 brought passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act and began EPA’s phase-out of lead from gasoline. In 1976, Republican President Gerald Ford’s signature on the Toxic Substances Control Act capped a remarkable period of bipartisan achievement inspired by Earth Day.

Earth Day has grown steadily and continues to be a touchstone for national and international action on climate and environment. This year it will engage more than a billion people worldwide. We will be of many faiths and none, but all embracing an empathic, spiritual connection to Earth and reverence for the annual cycles of life that support us.

I am neither religious nor deeply acquainted with the Bible, but I value Isaiah’s (11:6-9) desire that there be wolves and lambs, leopards and kids (the goat ones), bears and calves, not necessarily lying down together, but with plenty of habitat and food for all. And a little child — actually a whole lot of them — will lead.

This year kids (human ones) of all ages are taking to the streets and halls of power on behalf of a healthy future for nature and people. As in 1970, they bring many concerns, including rampant gun violence, endless wars, racial injustice, species extinctions, and treatment of migrants, but one overwhelming issue — global warming — unites them all.

They are young, but old enough to experience global warming’s initial effects, grasp the simple physics driving it and foresee how it will affect their lives. They witness the steady rise of global temperature and its effects on people, plants, animals, habitats, weather and supplies of food and water. They see the enormous human and economic costs from increasingly vicious storms, harsher droughts and rising sea level. They understand the enormous emotional and financial costs and tensions created when people are forced to migrate as their homelands become uninhabitable. Awareness that their generation will bear the costs of these climate miseries moves them to act.

Last month, inspired by 16-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, students from Mount Desert Island’s middle schools, high school and College of the Atlantic (COA) participated in the Student Climate Strike to protest government inaction on climate change, along with a million others all across the US and more than 2,000 student actions in 125 countries.

On Tuesday, April 23, students from Mount Desert Island High School and COA will travel to the Maine State House in Augusta to join hundreds of others from all over Maine in a Youth Day of Action to demand immediate action to curb climate change. The event is sponsored by Maine Climate Action, a coalition developed by A Climate to Thrive and devoted to youth engagement in climate. Students will meet legislators to share their concerns and hear about climate-related bills.

On Saturday, April 27, following Friends of Acadia’s Roadside Cleanup, all citizens are invited to participate in the Downeast Climate March, sponsored by Indivisible MDI, from 1-3 p.m. on the Village Green, featuring an exciting program of speakers. Following the program, COA will host its annual Earth Day festivities from 3-7 p.m. on the campus.

More than 2,700 years ago Isaiah foresaw a little child leading, but today millions of youth are guiding us forward. They are smart, articulate and equipped with tools Isaiah could never have predicted. Our job is to hear them, take their crucial messages to heart and do everything we can to help them gain the future they need and deserve.

Steve Katona is a biologist and former president of College of the Atlantic. He lives in Bar Harbor.

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