Earth Day at 50: In the Shadow of the Pandemic, Can Public Consciousness Shift?

Ed Culhane, WI Green Fire, April 30, 2020


In my 12 years as a communicator with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, I had ambivalent feelings about Earth Day – just as I did during my 24 years as a newspaper reporter.

For most of those years, it was difficult to get environmental stories on the front page. They were hard to ferret out, difficult to explain and generated little excitement. They lacked a simple narrative with easily defined heroes and villains.

When you managed to get a serious story on the cover – elucidating the invisible threat to generations of children posed by PCBs in the Fox River, for instance – it failed to sparkle in the public consciousness. The reporter got no love. Most people, we knew, didn’t vote with environmental issues top-of-mind.

Meanwhile, at the DNR, every day is Earth Day. The fight to rescue and preserve natural resources is endless. We celebrated Earth Day and did our best to make it a teachable moment, but soon enough the public’s interest would wane. DNR folks are famously resilient, and not given to despair, but you could forgive the occasional bit of dark humor.

Of course there are heroes, like Gaylord Nelson and his daughter, Tia, and more recently, Greta Thunberg. Nelson’s genius in building the people-powered Earth Day movement led to a flurry of legislation, including the critical Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and despite powerful opposition, we’ve spent decades cleaning up those Fox River PCBs and doing a bunch of other cool stuff.

Nevertheless, the environmental decade of the 1970s was followed by the antigovernment movement of the 1980s and beyond. Consumerism often trumped conservation.

Even recently, as the existential threat of climate change has become crazy obvious, the public will for a dramatic restructuring of our energy and financial policies, of our way of life, has been less than robust.

And then along came a global pandemic, and suddenly everything is different. The vaunted economy is in freefall. Masses of us are stuck at home, rethinking all sorts of priorities.

As the burning of fossil fuels plummets, the air in the world’s most polluted cities is clearing up, big-time, and people are noticing. Greenhouse gases are in decline.

Is it possible that this 50th anniversary of Earth Day will mark another historic shift in our public consciousness? Will more people – facing this terrible invisible enemy – again turn to science, to critical thinking? Will the vital necessity of effective government be recognized?

Is that hope I feel?


Ed Culhane was a communications specialist for the DNR from 2008 until his retirement in 2019, serving as regional public affairs manager for the west central and northeast regions and as a public information officer on incident command teams. Prior to that he was a daily newspaper reporter for 26 years, primarily at The Post-Crescent in Appleton, working general assignment and then as the newspaper’s environmental reporter and outdoor columnist. Ed is a member of Wisconsin’s Green Fire.


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