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Published on Saturday, April 22, 2000 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Next Earth Day Mission: Poverty
Much has changed on this planet since the first Earth Day 30 years ago today, and by no means all of it for the worse. But there are roughly 2 billion more of us now to consume the Earth's resources and to pollute its life-giving air, water and soil. And far too many of us live on the ragged margins of existence where ecologically correct behavior is not consonant with day-to-day survival.

People in impoverished nations wreck their environment because, unlike us, they rarely have access to better choices. Many lack the very basic necessity of life: clean water. Many lack fuel to cook their food -- or food itself.

This assuredly is fertile ground for improvement. And eco-friendly technologies exist to alleviate misery in ecologically ravaged nations. But leadership and means have been lacking as a seemingly unstemmable tide of environmentally destructive poverty swamps have-not nations.

In rich nations, meanwhile, legal, scientific and technological advances have changed behavior and prevented ecological degradation. Unfortunately, wise environmental stewardship is a luxury confined primarily to wealthy nations. In the past 30 years, it's become largely a matter of making better personal lifestyle and business choices from a plethora of comparatively painless possibilities. And ecological protection has been enshrined in both law and culture.

"The right to a safe, healthy environment -- a concept that essentially did not exist before 1970 -- has become a core American value," says Earth Day co-founder Denis Hayes, head of Seattle's Bullitt Foundation.

Hayes carried out former Sen. Gaylord Nelson's idea for an Earth Day that would underscore the link between protection of Earth's environment and sustaining human life on the planet. Hayes is coordinating international Earth Day activities from Seattle, the heart of Eco-topia.

Earth Day has been exported to less fortunate nations, China and India among them. This year's theme is climate change and its link to ill-considered energy use. It rightly stresses the urgency of cutting down the burning of fossil fuels to reduce loading the atmosphere with gases that accelerate global warming.

Climate is no respecter of people, rich or poor. So the effort to tame global warming underscores that we're all in this together.

But only to a point. Human life will not be universally sustainable on this planet until poverty is eradicated. It's the root cause of environmental degradation in poor countries.

That calls for an Earth Day focused on poverty.

1999-2000 Seattle Post-Intelligencer


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