Phill Courtney

It seems like a lifetime away, but only a few months ago that the world was focused on a stern, teenage Swedish girl who warned us about the effects of global warming. Greta Thunberg was Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” Also seemingly a world away, was the pushback from deniers who wrote her off as a “mentally disturbed” girl being manipulated by adults with “agendas.”

Greta turned 17 this year and it occurred to me that she is the same age I was when I was in high school during the first Earth Day in 1970. We had just seen those photos of Earth taken by our Apollo astronauts of that “pale, blue, marble in space,” teeming with life and thousands rallied that day to pledge their commitment to protecting our home.

I was a budding environmentalist then, filled with fervor and conviction that my generation would be the one to honor the Earth. For a while, it seemed it would happen. We might remember that President Nixon (a Republican!) deserves credit for signing into law the clean water and air acts, plus another influential environmental law — the Endangered Species Act — a thorn in the side for every land developer since.   

If we could only say those trends continued, but the evidence is in: Since that first Earth Day we have not been on a trajectory toward saving the world, but just the opposite. Now, as the coronavirus continues to harm all humankind — pushing Greta and others out of the headlines — it may be easy to miss the warnings of others who say that this crisis, too, is the result of habitats degraded everyday by Earth’s predominant species. To satisfy the ever-increasing appetite of almost 8 billion Homo sapiens, we’re constantly encroaching farther into the natural world, forcing many wild animals to and over the brink of extinction, as some are brought in to eat, increasing the chances of animal/human viral transmissions. Obviously this must end as I hope does the eating and exploitation of animals everywhere. However, you’re right. I’m not holding my breath.  

Despite its horrible effects, this pandemic offers other such teachable moments for our at-risk environment. As we’ve also seen with the beneficial clearing of skies as many forgo daily driving, maybe we’ll notice that and finally get serious about ending the fossil fuel era.

To make these sorts of moves, millions of Americans need to stop denying reality, which has resulted in electing so many rabid anti-environmentalists — none more egregious than the one now in the White House. While the list of successes since 1970’s first Earth Day are a sign of hope, the sad list of avoidable disasters that have happened since continues to taint all that hope.

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day reminds us of both, yes, how far we have come, but also how much farther we yet need to go. For the sake of hopeful 17-year-olds like I once was and now a passionate one named Greta Thunberg, let’s all join in the journey.

Fifty years from now, on the 100th anniversary of Earth Day, I see a couple of possibilities: That a 67-year-old Greta will not have to write another column like this because we have taken our need for change to heart or that she will not be around to write it, nor will anyone else. Meanwhile, I recommend the documentary, “Planet of the Humans,” now showing for free on Youtube.

Phill Courtney is a former high school English teacher, can be reached at