Earth Day - The View from the F Terminal

06/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Every spring semester, the great triumvirate of commemorative events - Black History Month, Women's History Month, and Earth Day - arrives on college campuses as predictably as the return of robins. As a woman scientist who is called forth to podiums across the nation during two of the three months of back-to-back teach-ins, I believe in their power to inspire and educate. But Earth Day needs to take a lesson from the other two.

The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot. And then just possibly, hopefully, it goes home, or on. - Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider

Each year on the third Monday in January - Martin Luther King Day - a gong goes off in my brain, like the dressing room bell that signals thirty minutes to curtain time. For all of us authors and scholars who write about social issues and ride the college lecture circuit to speak about them, the season of "teachable moments" is about to commence.

First comes Black History Month (February) and then Women's History Month (March) and finally Earth Day month (April). And so - perhaps less like backstage actors and more like heats of swimmers preparing to race across open water - we college speakers fan out across the continent. Because I am an ecologist, April is my heavy travel month. But because I have a particular research interest in women's environmental health, I am also asked, in the month prior, to deliver presentations that explore the ways in which toxic chemical exposures can, for example, sabotage women's fertility, or contribute to pregnancy loss, or contaminate breast milk. Thus, my theme in March is women's bodies as the first environment. By April, I'm describing the status of the larger environment - the atmosphere, the oceans, the groundwater - on which those bodies depend.

Setting out in early spring, I sometimes cross paths in the airport with my African American sisters who are coming home from back-to-back months of black history and women's history programming. I have yet to compare notes with speakers who receive invitations to the whole triathlon, but I can guess who they are - Hazel Johnson in Chicago, Beverly Wright in New Orleans, Peggy Shepard in Harlem, and other black women leaders of the environmental justice movement.

It would be easy to feel cynical about this annual parade of oratory. And, indeed, many scholars do. They complain that one or another of the three official commemorations has degenerated into empty ritual that serves only to compartmentalize the relevant issues.

After twenty years of Earth Day speeches, I understand these criticisms, but I am not a cynic. Perhaps because my own horizons have been so dramatically expanded by speeches and performances I've heard during the months of February and March, I hold to the belief that something I say in April might likewise provoke an epiphany in someone else's life.

Growing up in a white, blue-collar town in the 1960s and 70s, I went off to college knowing almost nothing about the particular histories of women or civil rights. Although I was eight when Dr. King was assassinated, I have no memories of the event. My third-grade teacher said nothing about it, nor did my parents. (Tellingly, I do remember President Kennedy's assassination, which occurred when I was only four.) And what I knew about women's liberation came from mocking commentary in the Reader's Digest.

And then the annual cycle of special-events programming in college rocked my world. During some long-ago February, I first heard blues, jazz, and gospel music when the vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock visited my campus. I learned the names of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers. Across various Februaries, I wrote papers about Jean Toomer's Cane and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Across various Marches, I heard poetry readings by Alicia Ostriker and Adrienne Rich. I learned the names of Sojourner Truth and Rosalind Franklin. I read about the Triangle Fire and the Bread and Roses Strike. And I began to understand that my chosen career path in science had, in fact, been blazed for me by generations of forgotten women. When I read Kate Chopin's The Awakening, I, too, came awake.

From this perspective, I am willing to view Earth Day, with its picnics and downloadable craft projects, as an opportunity for serious conversation. Not all ignorance is willful. Sometimes people don't know about the history of a problem simply because no one has yet bothered to explain it to them in an unscornful way. I was once an 18-year-old who had never heard of the Freedom Riders or the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. Surely, there are students walking around now who have not heard the basic news from my field of study. How the oceans make half of our planet's oxygen supply. How insect pollinators provide us one-sixth of the food we eat. How cancer rates among young adults are rising and sperm counts falling. Earth Day offers me the chance to talk about this evidence.

But my task would be easier if Earth Day shared some of the gravitas and seriousness of purpose of its venerable older siblings. (At age 40, Earth Day is far younger than either Black History Month, born in 1926 as Negro History Week, or Women's History Month, first celebrated in 1911 as International Women's Day). It is time for Earth Day to grow up, leave off with the picnics and trash clean-ups, and reinvent its narrative. Just as the women's movement and the civil rights movement were about epic struggles for human rights, the environmental movement is about nothing less than the epic struggle to forestall the collapse of our ecological system, upon which all of our lives depend.

As I set off on this year's Earth Day tour, I'm looking over my shoulder at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina and at a Methodist chapel in Seneca Falls, New York. I am searching for acts of heroism that inspire not just awareness of a problem, but antidotes to despair and fundamental strategies for transformation.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream, newly published in second edition by Merloyd Lawrence Books/Da Capo Press to coincide with the release of the documentary film adaptation. This essay is one in a weekly series by Sandra, exploring how the environment is within us. /