Earth Day Reflections: From Emerson’s Rainbow to the Green Movement

by Kim   |   April 8, 2009


Does setting aside one day a year for the earth really mean anything? 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, just one Earth Day forever changed Americans' attitudes: "Public opinion polls indicate that a permanent change in national priorities followed Earth Day 1970. When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment to be an important goal, a 2500% increase over 1969." 

Of course, Earth Day is most meaningful in the context of a yearlong commitment to the environment. By the same token, today's eco-consciousness is more than a green blip on the screen of American history.  

Looking at the progress made since the first Earth Day, there are a lot of reasons for hope.

From Pristine Naturalists to Urban Activists

John Muir was an early American naturalist, preservationist, and a champion of National Parks. Muir traveled across the country pioneer-style, advocating for the intrinsic value of forests, mountains, and valleys, in contrast to “conservationists” like Gifford Pinchot, a proponent of the responsible use of forests much like modern sustainable tree farming.

Today we hear objections to rain forest clearcutting for cattle and water pollution from hog farms. Muir was an early voice for damage that livestock could to do the environment, calling sheep “hoofed locusts.”

For the next hundred years, says, “protecting the planet's natural resources was not part of the national political agenda. According to a CNN report: 'Back then, a few activists worked on traditional green issues, such as conservation, the protection of wilderness and animals. But none tackled urban ones, such as industrial pollution.' ”

Yet on the first Earth Day, rallies were held in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and "most other American cities," according to the EPA. "In fact, 80 percent of all observances were urban affairs." Currently, cities are at the forefront of the environmental movement: spearheading farmers' markets, raising chickens, and planting community gardens. 

Cities are working to protect and increase green space--belonging to no one but enriching everyone, like modern John Muirs preserving city—rather than national—parks.. There may be less pristine nature to preserve, but perhaps we are moving towards a more well-marbled green vs. industrial landscape.

"Nature is the symbol of spirit."  —Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

Though the title of his 1836 book was Nature, it was the fruit of Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s studies in philosophy, religion and literature. Transcendentalism is just one of many ways of mapping the relationship between humans and nature through spirit.   Their school of thought saw Nature as instructing humans through beauty “through an admonishing smile”, “the perpetual presence of the sublime.” 

Nature and spirit grow intertwined, wrote Emerson: “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” His perspective, however, was not universally accepted. Someone once tried to insult author Hermann Melville with the charge that he was “oscillating in Emerson’s rainbow.”

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.   Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

Fast forward to the new tradition of Earth Day, which according to the Earth Day Network is “the largest secular civic event in the world," involving over 1 billion people each year. Does "civic" mean we've lost the ability to see the spirit in the trees?

The modern green movement is not devoid of the spiritual. Faith communities are getting on board by greening buidings and congregations alike. Pope Benedict added “environmental pollution” to the list of deadly sins.  Being green is seen as more of  a responsibility for everyone living on the planet, while being spiritual is considered to be optional in at least some cultures. 

The fact that Earth Day has managed to transcend differences of faith and culture, uniting us in our common fate as earthlings on a fragile earth, is indeed cause for hope.

Whether you celebrate out in the wilderness, in the style of John Muir, or you're active in an urban center--demonstrating, educating, planting—there are many ways to celebrate Earth Day.