Earth Day is a Church celebration


Scripture, Psalm 104, Earth Day Nigel Bunce


I chose today’s Scripture to honour the fact that Earth Day is a Church celebration.  These verses from Psalm 104 begin by blessing the Lord’s greatness.  The psalm goes on to bless everything in Creation. It’s actually an extended hymn to all the things that God created according to Genesis Chapter 1. Day and night; sun and moon. Land, sea, streams, winds. Grass and trees, and the animals that depend on them. Food from the earth; bread and wine for our sustenance and enjoyment.

Earth Day and the Church

In 2013, the Anglican Church of Canada revised our baptismal vows to include this promise. “Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth?” Answer: “I will, with God’s help.” The effect was to make Earth Day an important event in our liturgical calendar. That’s why Earth Day is a Church celebration as well as a secular one.  But this year is especially significant. 

The 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day

Senator Gaylord Nelson, from the cover of a book published by University of Wisconsin Press.

Earth Day is an American innovation. It began in 1970, when Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson had the idea of a ‘teach-in’ in response to the environmental degradation that he saw all around the US. The spark that lit the fire was a major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, the previous year. Rallies were held all across the US on April 22nd 1970, the first Earth Day.

By July of that year, President Richard Nixon had signed an executive order authorizing the creation of the EPA, and by the end of 1970, the US Congress had passed into law the first Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. For decades, the US was a world leader in pollution abatement. It is sadly ironical that the current US President seems committed to undoing much of the good work of the past half century.

What things were like, environmentally, in 1970

I would like to review some of the successes of Earth Day and the environmental movement, by thinking of how things were 50 years ago. The Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie at Cleveland OH, was so polluted that on several occasions, the last time in 1969, it caught fire. Phosphate pollution in Lake Erie had destroyed the fishery. There were no perch suppers in Port Dover.

Some things in my own memory. In 1969, I travelled across Ontario by train, and wondered why there was no plant life, mile after mile, in the area of Sudbury. I also remember visiting friends in Huntington WV in 1971. On the way we passed through Ironton OH, where roadside signs announced “CAUTION: FOG AREA”. The ‘fog’ was actually an acidic mist from the steel mills. During our visit on that occasion, we could neither drink, cook with, nor even shower in the water, because of a chlorophenol spill upriver from Huntington’s drinking water intakes.

More recently, I recall summertime smog advisories for southern Ontario, as part of the weather forecast. Also, there were fears of increased skin cancer rates due to an alarming reduction in the concentration of stratospheric ozone. The cause: the use of certain spray can propellents called CFCs.

Improvements in the environment since 1970

Fortunately, all these examples are now history. International action (or at least concerted effort) was, and is, necessary to solve many of these environmental problems. Thus, abatement of summertime smog in Southern Ontario was achieved by mandating the use of catalytic converters on automobiles and improved engine efficiency, even as the number of cars increased.

Best fish platter in Port Dover Ontario. Image form tripadvisor,ca

The fishery in Lake Erie recovered by lowering phosphate levels in laundry detergents and improved sewage treatment.

Acid rain caused the issues I observed in Sudbury and Ironton, and in crystal clear but dead lakes. They are now historical problems, at least in North America. Sudbury is green again.

I’d like to think of Canada as another environmental leader, but that would be wishful thinking. We didn’t officially celebrate Earth Day until 1990, the year that Earth Day ‘went global’. And we didn’t pass our Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) until 1988.

An important inclusion in CEPA was to declare as “toxic” substances that constitute a danger to the environment on which life depends. This provision allowed Canada to designate CFCs as toxic, and led to the international conference that issued the “Montreal Protocol” in 1989. The result was to phase out CFCs. Today, the notorious “ozone holes” in the atmosphere are recovering.

Each generation focusses on its own environmental problems

Top of mind today are climate change and plastics pollution. It’s clear to me that individual action cannot solve these problems. We need government action, and often international action.

We have to prevent pollution. Remediation is almost impossible once something gets into the environment.  Carbon dioxide, plastic – you cannot get them back. The atmosphere contains 0.04% CO2. To capture such tiny concentrations is impractical. So we have to either stop producing it or capture it before it escapes. Closing coal-fired power plants in Ontario was a good move. It lowered CO2 emissions. Cancelling wind farm contracts was a bad move.

It’s not practical to capture the CO2 that cars and trucks emit. But it’s definitely practical to make large emitters of CO2 (cement production, breweries) do so. Likewise, don’t dream about recovering all that waste plastic from the oceans. Just don’t let it get there. How? Work with industry to give up one-trip uses of plastics. Make industry responsible for the materials that they generate, ‘cradle-to-grave’.

Industry has many excellent chemists and engineers. But they are constrained by our demand, as consumers, for convenience and low cost. That’s why we need regulation, such as significant deposits on plastics. Ten cents is enough to get over 90% of Ontario beer bottles returned; 25¢ would make people think twice about buying 24 bottles of water for 99¢ with a $6.00 deposit!

Why is this potted history and call for action relevant in a church sermon?

My response is simple. As Christians, we acknowledge God as “Creator of heaven and earth”. As Anglicans, we have promised to “to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth”. One of our Eucharistic Prayers refers to “this fragile Earth, our island home”. It recognizes how easily we humans could destroy the environment on which we all depend. To repeat myself, that’s why Earth Day is a Church celebration as well as a secular one.  

As on so many topics, the Bible does not offer a single message. In Genesis 1: 28 God gave humanity dominion over everything in creation. Stewardship wasn’t a necessary constraint to the writers from a small tribe that was always in danger of being wiped out by stronger neighbours. We still have that attitude. “Plenty more fish in the sea” we say to someone spurned in love. But real fish – not so much.

Let us pray with words taken from Psalm 104. O Lord, how manifold are your works. In wisdom, you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. May the glorious majesty of the Lord endure for ever; may the Lord rejoice in all his works. I will sing to the Lord a song as I live. I will praise my God while I have my being. And so may my words please him; my joy shall be in the Lord. Amen. May it be so.