Earth Day starts with us

No planet B.

March for Science The March for Science Sydney in 2017. Source: SMH & Kirk Gilmour.

“Hey Environment. It’s not you, it’s us.”

The message on the home page of the Sydney Environmental Institute is meant to sound like a cliché break up text. Are things really this bad, USyd? Are we in the middle of a messy break up with the environment, after all the time and effort that’s been put in? As in any break up, you ask yourself the question — am I going to regret the decision I’ve made?

A few weeks ago, on April 22nd, I walked into a meeting to find a friend holding a plant. “It’s Earth Day”, he informed me. I’ve written three papers on environmentalism this semester but Earth Day, a worldwide event created to promote environmental protection, almost managed to slip past me unnoticed.

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, is typically credited as precipitating the scientific environmental movement. When Earth Day launched in the United States on 22 April 1970, the movement had most certainly reached the mainstream — 20 million people flooded the grounds of two thousand American universities to rally for reform. Republicans and Democrats united to pass legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency.

Two years later, the movement arrived in Australia with anti-litter campaigns and protests against damming projects. Included in the protests was the United Tasmania Group, which is now recognised as the world’s first green party. Numerous strikes by building unions in the name of the environment, so-called ‘Green bans’, brought the word ‘green’ into the social lexicon.

By the 1980s, the environmental movement in Australia had reached a peak. High air pollution levels and major land erosion fuelled activism in the name of a clean future. The counterculture that had nurtured the movement was diminishing, but public support of conservation became more and more popular, as initiatives like mass tree-planting and Clean Up Australia Day took hold. In 1983, the Hawke government blocked the contentious plan to dam the Franklin River in Tasmania in a display that showed the power of green campaigning. Environmentally friendly messages became stylish in pop culture, embraced by bands like Midnight Oil and U2.

In 1990, Australia celebrated its first Earth Day, along with 140 other countries and 200 million people. Bob Hawke declared the 1990s Australia’s ‘Decade of Landcare’, and the steady restoration of the ozone layer after the ban on CFCs brought new optimism about the power of international environmental cooperation.

Keating’s leadership slowed that momentum. As treasurer, Keating had criticised the idea of Australia undertaking carbon reduction policies with adverse economic affects, unless similar actions were taken by the vast majority of other greenhouse gas producing countries.

The responsibility to act seems to have returned to where it began — with individuals and communities.

USyd students have numerous avenues to engage with climate research: the Science Faculty offers a major in Environmental Studies, the Department of Government and International Relations provide several units in environmental politics, and multiple university clubs promote environmental issues alongside the Students’ Representative Council Environmental Collective. Last year, USyd hosted the third annual National Environment Meeting, an event for activists across Australia to gather and discuss key issues of the environmental movement. This year, the March for Science on Earth Day saw 10,000 people demonstrate across Australia.

The average university student is more concerned with finishing late assignments. Unfortunately, the penalties for late action on the environment are far worse. Our governments are shirking responsibility and whether we choose to do something about it is up to us.