Earth Day hasn't lit fire under U.S.

JOHN BURGESON, Connecticut Post

Article Last Updated: 04/22/2008 04:02:49 PM EDT

When the first Earth Day took place on this day in 1970, the problems facing the globe were such calamities as oil spills, overflowing landfills, toxic waste, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness and the extinction of rare plants and animals.

Most of those scars on the planet remain realities and, if anything, the list has grown longer — and far more serious — in the intervening 38 years, experts agree.

"We could, if we're wise, have a bountiful, beautiful environment, or we could ruin the place," said Gus Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. "And I don't think it's going to take 100 years to find out which path we're on."

At the top of the list, Speth said in his book, "The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability," is climate change.

"In short, there is little doubt that the process of human-induced global warming has begun in earnest, that the consequences are already serious, and they could be devastating if the buildup of greenhouse gasses are not halted," he writes.

Speth said that he does see signs of movement away from Americans' "ultra-consumptive lifestyle," but this change must come about rapidly, "or it will be too late."

Despite the gravity of the situation — with glaciers melting, fisheries collapsing, forests disappearing and the population exploding — there does not seem to be much concern on area college campuses, professors agree.

Rachael Ranis, a sociology professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden since 1968, said that her students demonstrate an "almost shocking lack of knowledge" about the threats to the planet.

"They tend not to want to look at trouble, and they even go so far as to avoid those who talk about it," she said. "I think they'll eventually get with it, but it will take time."

She notes that at Quinnipiac, as with other area campuses, such as Fairfield and Sacred Heart universities, there is no culture that encourages such things as using a bicycle to get around. Students, for the most part, are content with using their cars.

Edina Oestreicher, the director of campus activities at the University of Bridgeport, agrees. "I have to say that here at UB, there is not a lot of environmentalism going on," she said. "They're worried about getting grades and paying the bills — the planet is not seen as a pressing issue."

She added: "The girls still like the guys with the big cars."

Stacy Davis, president of the Student Environment Association at Fairfield University, agrees. "I feel kind of frustrated, too," said the junior from New Hampshire when asked whether fellow students were concerned about the environment. "When the school took away the lunch trays to help save water, all they could say was, 'This is so stupid — why can't we have our trays back?' "

She added that on cold days, some Fairfield students would even use their cars to get from one end of the campus to the other. But, she added, Fairfield University students did participate in a beach cleanup on a recent weekend and will be collecting litter from the campus today. They're also donating their used sneakers to be recycled into ground cover for playgrounds.

"Next year, I hope to get more students on the same page," she said.

David Koch, a history professor at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, said that it's unrealistic to expect even a large minority of the student body to take up the issue.

"In any generation, I don't think you're going to find 60 or 70 percent of the students being activists," he said. "But I think that the younger generation is tuned into it — and they're tuned into something else as well — and that is that the older generation has really let them down." He noted that authors, such as Rachel Carson, predicted a half-century ago that there would be environmental destruction on a global scale, and yet little was done about it.

"A lot of the younger generation looks at us and says: 'You had the information right in front of you, and yet, you elected Ronald Reagan as president — the Me Generation.' There was no environmental activism to come out of that, instead, people just became even more hedonistic."

Koch said that students today don't believe that the generations of their parents and grandparents will do anything about reversing environmental threats.

"They really don't believe that we'll do anything about it, and I have to say, there's a lot of evidence to support that," he said. Speth said that it's understandable that Earth Day lacks the fervor seen in 1970s. "The issues today are a lot more global, they're more threatening, but the problem is that they're seemingly more remote," he said. "Back then, we had things like oil spills and rivers that were really foul-smelling. We're cleaned some of that up, and shipped some of those problems offshore. But if we don't solve the climate problem, the other ones won't really matter."