by Kendra Langdon Juskus
Ideally, Earth Day shouldn’t be any different from any other day. If we are stewarding the earth in obedience to God’s command, every one of our days will be filled with the recognition of his glory in the natural world, with delight in the beauty and provision of his hand, and with responsible care as we use and cultivate what he has created.
But Earth Day, like other days that have been set aside for remembrance and respect, is still a big deal, especially this year. Today marks 40 years since the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. That first celebration was the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin, who envisioned the purpose of the day to be a national teach-in to heighten public awareness about environmental issues. A New York Times article from the day before the first Earth Day explains that organizers planned the celebration in an era of Vietnam war and Civil Rights protests because “It was thought that if public sentiment could be galvanized on a negative theme, it could be mobilized even more forcefully toward the positive goal of improved environment.”
The reality of environmental degradation had been recognized prior to the first Earth Day, of course. The repeated burning of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River due to water pollution; lethal bouts with air pollution (such as the lingering smog that caused 4,000 premature deaths in London in 1952); and Rachel Carson’s revelation, in her 1962 book Silent Spring, that misused agricultural pesticides and fertilizers were poison to humans and the earth, were among the many events that heightened public awareness of environmental issues to the extent that an Earth Day celebration would even be relevant.
It is important to recognize this expanding consciousness of creation’s groaning, and to celebrate the improvements that have accompanied it: clean air and water, the conservation of many species that were in decline, the preservation of open space.
Yet it is also important to remember that some large-scale ecological improvements are not necessarily cause for optimism. An naively optimistic view of the environment ignores the unfair burden of environmental degradation carried by the world’s poor. It ignores the fact that unwieldy, impersonal expansion of our cities and suburbs not only squelches biodiversity and open space, but also the verdant landscapes of human interaction. It ignores the fact that the more we think we’ve got right, the less we recognize our need for grace and our ultimate dependence on God and what he has made, not what we can make of it.
Instead of being optimistic, we–as Christians–are hopeful. And our hope is foundational to every day of our lives, not just Earth Day. So let us celebrate this day in recognition for what it means in the history of our relationship with God’s earth. But let us also celebrate Thanksgiving in gratitude for the bounty of God’s creation and the love that can occur between strangers. Let us celebrate Christmas in acknowledgment that not only is Christ our brother, savior, and redeemer, but he is also the One through whom all things were made. Let us celebrate–on each nameless day of our lives, on our birthdays, at family get-togethers, and at church–the goodness of God’s creation with hope, joy, and hard work.
We are hopeful because the earth is the Lord’s–a fact that remains unconstrained by holidays or public awareness or sin–and that is why we care for his creation every day.
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it …”
- Psalm 24:1