Earth Day, A Birthday, and Evolution
plus: read to the end for a surprise update about Woodsy Owl
Earth Day: thinking big
… high above there is the Earth, rushing oceans, racing clouds, swaying fields and forests. Family, friends, and strangers, everyone you’ve ever known, everyone you might – the good and lonely Earth, glowing in the sky. - Brian Floca, Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11
You probably know, but Earth Day was this past Thursday. You may not know that the original Earth Day was started in 1969 by peace activist John McConnell, whose concern for the environment stemmed from his Pentacostal upbringing. His goal was to promote a “climate of peace and justice as a prerequisite for ecological preservation.”
McConnell’s Earth Day was celebrated on the vernal equinox in March - the first day of spring - and quickly received the support of the United Nations. But it was soon co-opted by an environmental teach-in day that US Senator Gaylord Nelson conceived of a month after the inaugural Earth Day. After failing to persuade McConnell to move his observance, Nelson took the name for his own event.
He secured the backing of the United Auto Workers and the modern Earth Day - initially designed to advance support for a legislative agenda - was born. In 2009, the United Nations proclaimed April 22nd International Mother Earth Day, ending the divergence.
Pragmatic politics winning out over idealism - not much has changed in the last 50 years. And it’s hard to argue that we’ve gotten much of a better handle on ecological preservation. What started as a concern has become a crisis, in large part because of the world’s increased use of fossil fuels and the resultant production of greenhouse gases (which has doubled since Nelson’s Earth Day debuted in 1970).
You might look at these charts and come to the conclusion that we in the United States are doing our part. But I’d argue we aren’t. If, in the age of COVID, you needed another reminder of how interconnected the world is, then here’s a very compelling one. It suggests a need to re-establish our standing in the world and use it to join in and help advance a global commitment for change. And as one of the biggest consumers of the world’s resources, the idea that we should lead by example.
That’s my rational, pragmatic take - unburdened by an in-depth knowledge of international relations. But in my heart, I’m sort of with McConnell - to me, climate justice is part and parcel of social justice. If we truly cared for each other, then caring for the planet would follow. But luckily, we don’t have to choose between the two causes. We mustn’t.
Earth Day: thinking small
Fixing the climate crisis is a big task that can seem overwhelming. In the face of something so big that seems beyond my control, I like to focus on what I can change - my attitude and my own behavior. Once I think of it that way, I discover many things I can personally do that can make a difference.
The one I want to talk about today is the choices you make while caring for clothes. This is something I’ve been thinking about for the past five years and stems from a 2016 conversation I had with Abe Burmeister, a co-founder of a clothing company called Outlier.
He was talking about a study Outlier started with the Parsons School of Design on the environmental impact throughout the lifecycle of a piece of clothing (unfortunately, it never completed - something to do with funding). A lot of talk in the industry tends to focus on the environmental impact of the production side - how fabric is made and treated. We talk about the oil that goes into synthetics, the use of clean water in washing, the pollution from dyeing, the chemicals used for weatherproofing finishes. And then there’s the carbon footprint of transport - fabric from one country being shipped to another for sewing, then distributed for retail.
These are all very real - but what Burmeister learned was different:
What was really interesting to me was that one of the highest points of waste - especially from a carbon standpoint - in the entire cycle of the garment was actually in the drying machine… it's just drawing in a crazy amount [of energy], whether it's electric or gas-powered. So that's the highest point - and not by a small amount, but a very large amount.
So if you hang dry them, the clothes that dry faster really reduce that impact significantly.
That is surprising but makes sense - drying machines are often the second biggest energy hogs in a household, even though they are much less essential than the perpetual #1 - your refrigerator. Beyond that, drying machines are really rough on clothes - if you take just about anything and basically bake it every week, it’s going to break down faster, right? So transitioning to air drying (on an outside line, or an indoors rack) will lessen your environmental impact and also reduce your energy bill - all while helping your clothes last longer. A win / win / win.
Another couple steps you can take:
Wash gently - Ever get a weird, unexplained rash after switching laundry detergent? There’s all sorts of weird chemicals that can go into it, which can end up in our waterways and have harmful effects on marine life and you, too. Find out if your detergent is considered a Safer Choice by the EPA, and if not - consider making a switch.
Catch those microplastics - Believe it or not, our clothes are contributing to ocean plastic pollution. When you wash a garment with synthetic fibers (like a fleece jacket, or socks), it sheds micro fibers that can escape filters in water treatment plants and end up being consumed by marine wildlife - so much so that a study by the WWF has revealed that a person, on average, eats a credit card’s worth of plastic every year. So what can you do about this? Use a guppy bag for your synthetic washables (socks, fleeces, etc) - it catches those particles so you can safely dispose of them.
Another thing that happened in the past week - this newsletter turned one year old this past Monday. I find it hard to believe, but it happened week by week, over 44 installments. I’ve loved being able to connect to you all and hope my thoughts have provoked a thought or two while providing some manner of illumination of this world we live in.
I’ve learned a lot and my world has changed since those early days of lockdown - so the newsletter will, too. I want to be able to explore stories with more depth, and at my own pace - so I’m going to follow the inspiration of some of my favorite long-form podcasts and move to a serial format delivered in seasons (or chapters, if you will).
I’m still working out the details, but I plan to be back in your inbox sometime in May.
Give a hoot - your video moment of zen
The Gen X’ers among us will remember Woodsy Owl, an icon for the United States Forest Service - or at least his motto, “give a hoot - don’t pollute.” He was a fixture of public service announcements aimed at young kids, which featured heavily during Saturday morning cartoons in that pre-Nickelodeon era of the 70’s and early 80’s.
You may not have realized that it was a federal crime to reproduce his image or that slogan - that is until last December’s COVID relief bill.
In honor of Woodsy’s new found freedom (and that of Smokey the Bear, similarly liberated) - here’s a PSA I still remember from my childhood.