This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the 100th anniversary of white women’s right to vote in the United States. With the anniversary of two historical movements colliding, a reflection on our progress is warranted. However, while we have accomplished so much in our fight against environmental pollution and the patriarchy, we still have miles to go to achieve a society that prioritizes planetary and human health and security.
In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring warning about the dangers of DDT in US crop fields. She received vast criticism for only having a Master’s degree and for being an unmarried woman in her thirties—things for which a man would likely not have faced criticism. A year after publishing the book, Carson died of breast cancer as a victim of the chemical assault she forewarned. Dupont, Monsanto, the Vesicol Chemical Corporation, and the Chemical Manufacturers Association among others tried desperately to quiet her, fearing that her loudspeaker on their actions would cause sale declines, or even worse: regulations. A cancellation for DDT was issued in 1972 after Carson’s words influenced Nixon to establish the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, announcing success for the nascent mainstream environmentalism movement.
Today, we have glyphosate. Produced by Monsanto and the active ingredient in RoundUp, glyphosate is classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization and is disproportionately applied in agrarian communities in Latin America where the majority of our soy, palm, corn, and wheat—the primary ingredients in our processed foods—are produced. Another chunk of glyphosate exposure is in rural America, where the economy suffers from the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and the consolidation of big agribusiness. Women disproportionately accumulate the sprayed pesticides as our fat tissues in our breast’s mammary glands store the toxicity and bioaccumulate over time. The toxic chemicals can also be transferred from mother to baby in utero, which has been linked to infant malformations and autism spectrum disorder among other disabilities. The aftermath has a disproportionate impact on the mother who is usually expected to forgo her income strategy to raise the disabled child.
In the 1970s, housewives took to the street demanding more from our government and our businesses who used short-term gain to justify the discharge of chemicals and pollutants in our water and air. In Love Canal, New York, mothers saw their children fall ill from playing on the playgrounds under which the Hooker Chemical Company laid their chemical waste. These women stood up to the patriarchal power structure and demanded that the mother’s perspective be heard. Still at Love Canal, racism persisted, and although the toxicity of the predominantly Black neighborhood was also eminent, only the wealthier, white homes were in the relocation zone, and Black women were often excluded from leadership in the activist efforts, if not excluded from the activism efforts altogether. Still, following the efforts of white feminist environmentalism, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, was passed and required polluters to clean up their toxic waste (what a concept!).
Today, we have poison in the water pipes of a predominantly Black community in Flint, Michigan, which still does not have access to clean water. We have the North Dakota Sioux who fought for clean water security after developers were paid off by wealthy, white communities to not build near them. Developers still had other, costlier options, but the health risk to the community was not covered in the construction costs. Remember, it was their water first. The Dakota Access Pipeline leaked five times in 2017 alone.
Leading up to the 1970s, hippies and progressives embraced Native American values of living in harmony with nature as they observed the profit-driven assault on our planet. They watched fire burn on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio—the result of several decades of industrial waste accumulation. You know something’s not right when water catches fire. They grew concerned over the radioactive fallout from hydrogen bomb testing on the Bikini Atoll marine ecosystem and its impact on the people living in the Northern Marshall Islands who were forced to resettle and still are unable to return to their homes due to lingering radioactivity over 60 years later. They stood by while 3 million gallons of oil killed over 10,000 sea birds, dolphins, seals, and sea lions in the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. After witnessing the profit-driven environmental assault, 20 million Americans—10% of the population at the time!!—took to the street to peacefully protest for a healthier planet in what became the first Earth Day in 1970. The mobilization of citizens brought about the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air and Water Acts, and the Endangered Species Act a year later.
Today, we have extreme weather events disproportionately impacting poor communities from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey that are results of increasing temperatures fuelling greater storm surges. We have sunny-day flooding in Miami from sea-level rise. We have 87% of Alaskan Native communities facing disrupted transportation networks from the erosion of riverbanks and cliffs due to sea-level rise, and several communities forced to relocate entirely. We have an increased habitat range of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and we have a refugee crisis because climate change impacts the least-resilient and least-carbon-emitting tropics the hardest. We have the opportunity to apologize to Mother Earth by spreading messages of acceptance, collectiveness, and planet stewardship like we have done in the past. But we are letting the change stay with the climate while we deny the affordable, renewable energy that would also grant us energy independence and while we give tax dollars to subsidize fossil fuel companies.
Although it is the 50th anniversary of remarkable environmental achievements, we have stagnated in our commitment to protect the earth that sustains us. The power of activism and women’s leadership in environmental protection is indispensable. As this past Presidency has recalled or weakened over 80 environmental regulations, including measures to restrict air and water pollution and protect endangered species, the year of Mother Earth is more critical than ever. Like the tides, the seasons, and women, cycles are omnipresent in nature. The colliding anniversaries of successes for both the women’s and environmental movements during a socio-political system that prioritizes wealth accumulation is a timely reminder that we need to reassess our values. In the presence of pervasive greed and selfishness, we can shine through, or we can suffer.