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A View from the Woods: Earth Day changed my life

By Loni Kemp

Fri, Apr 25th, 2014
Posted in All Columnists

I was 17 in 1970, a junior at Osseo High School lying on the outskirts of the Minneapolis suburbs. Our former small town school was bursting at the seams, with over 2,000 students coming from the massive developments of ramblers that had overtaken potato farms. My family was part of that surge.

On a frosty April 22 morning, I woke early to take part in the first Earth Day walk to school. At dawn I met up with others along my route, as hundreds of kids picked up trash for five miles along housing developments, followed by thawing farm fields, and the outskirts of Osseo. I remember glancing back to Minneapolis and the Foshay Tower on the horizon, and seeing a brownish haze in the air. I recall the sacks of garbage we collected, including old tires and mysterious junk that had probably lain there for years. I had a strong sense that we were headed in a terrible direction, likely to cover the earth with sprawl, garbage and pollution.

I don’t recall any details of the speeches I heard that day, but I’ll never forget the will that was instilled in me to try to do something to keep the earth clean.

Senator Gaylord Nelson had the original idea for a national teach-in on environmental issues, modeled on the teach-ins which had been a potent tool for the anti-war and civil rights movements. With a tiny staff, and no big environmental groups yet in existence, they put the word out encouraging folks to plan their own events for the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.

The results were astonishing. More than 12,000 events took place across the country, mostly at high schools and colleges. Millions of people attended. Congress canceled its schedule, and two-thirds of its members participated at Earth Day events, a fact which seems unimaginable today.

Author Adam Rome chatted on Wisconsin Public Radio on this year’s Earth day, discussing his recent book “The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation.” He pointed out that a growing awareness of the value of the outdoors came right at a time when everyone could see the threats of litter, pesticides, air pollution and water pollution.

Immediately after the first Earth Day, Congress swung into action, creating the Environmental Protection Agency and passing the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the endangered Species Act in 1973.

For 40 years since then, environmental organizations have been fighting with ever greater resources to achieve full implementation of the visions of those laws, with mixed success. Yet virtually no major environmental legislation has been passed since 1990. Climate change, the biggest environmental threat ever faced by humankind, remains largely ignored by our federal government. What is the reason?

Rome contends that environmental groups have been trying ever since their beginnings to make change from the top down, using scientists, lobbyists, lawyers and public relations. It has neglected broad-based organizing. It is not the same for citizens to send a check to an environmental group, although that is also essential. People, in great numbers, also need to feel educated and empowered to take part in sustained political engagement in order for change to happen. As Rome said, on the first Earth Day people showed Congress that they better act—and they did.

I couldn’t have foreseen then where my new passion would take me. My guidance counselor firmly told me that girls can’t be forest rangers. So I headed off to college, soaking in biology, geography and the ethos of social change. I first worked as a city planner, and a water quality planner, but felt the constraints of working within government. I went to graduate school in public policy, taking my internship at a startup non-profit organization launched by Mark Dayton and his then-wife, Alida. The Minnesota Project is where I stayed for 29 years, working as a policy analyst to stop uranium mining in Minnesota, pass the Groundwater Protection Act, and enact the USDA Conservation Stewardship Program.

Now, at the peak of my experience, I consult with environmental and agriculture groups, government agencies and foundations on how to move toward sustainable agriculture and renewable energy.

I became a member of that green generation created on the first Earth Day.

Asparagus Soup

2 pounds asparagus

4-6 Tablespoons butter

1 1/2 cups sliced leeks or onions

3 Tablespoons flour

6 cups broth, water, or a combination

3/4 cup cream

salt and pepper

If you want to be fancy, cut off the top two inches of asparagus, boil for 4 minutes, and set aside in cold water. Chop the stalks into 1/2 inch pieces. Melt 4 T of the butter in a large saucepan and cook the onions until soft, about 8 minutes. Stir in asparagus and cook, covered, for 5-10 minutes. Uncover, stir in flour and cook 3-4 minutes. Add broth, bring to boil, then reduce to simmer for 30 minutes. Puree or put the soup through a sieve for a smooth texture. Whisk the cream into a half cup of hot soup, then return to the pot. Add the optional tips, and reheat without boiling. Salt and pepper to taste. Add the remaining 2 T of butter before serving hot, or omit it and serve the soup chilled.

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