I remember the first Earth Day. It was such a wonderful idea, everyone pitches in to adjust the trajectory of mankind’s relationship to Earth and we won't have to face the destruction of our home. In those days most of us were thinking about recycling pop bottles, putting out bird feeders, stopping the dumping of raw sewage into our waterways, and picking up hamburger wrappers that were routinely slung out of the windows of really fast cars that got about eight miles to the gallon. Yes, believe it or not, littering laws were nonexistent or simply ignored. We believed that if every individual did a little, that we, with only moderate effort, could fix the problems that loomed ahead for Mother Earth. We gathered on that first Earth day to pick up those pop cans and believed that we were doing something important.
Maybe we were. The road ditches are much cleaner now. You can swim in the Great Lakes again. Cars are getting thirty-plus miles per gallon of gas. People seem to be much more aware. But the goal posts have been moved. Back in 1970, very few of us had ever heard of man-made climate change, we knew little about worldwide mass migration or its causes. Air and water pollution seemed remote to most of us. You could say that the world was a simpler place back then, but the truth is that we were naive as toddlers. There were books about human overpopulation, over-consumption, and the coming struggle for resources but they were treated like science fiction. It was popular to believe that the world, and specifically American capitalism, could innovate a way out of such problems. We counted on capitalism to outthink those dilemmas. It turns out that these issues are calibrated on much longer time periods than we are used to dealing with. Most of our problems are rooted in our relationship to the land, our food systems, to the very dirt we live upon. And those problems have been accumulating for many generations of humans.
I am a veteran of forty-seven Earth Days and when I talk about this special day, especially to children, I need to keep a stiff upper lip and be positive even when the facts and statistics do not bear out optimism. It is difficult to be positive and truthful because I know that most of us are simply rearranging the proverbial deck chairs as the Titanic sinks. Had we known, in 1970, what we know now and could have stopped mindless development in its tracks the prospects for a happy future would be much better. It is hard to believe that the tipping point is not behind us. For many years some of us have believed that stopping the deterioration of our fragile ecosystem is not going to be enough. To improve our chances for a favorable future we would need to roll back the clock to a time when there was room to move, our soil was fertile and healthy, and the age old systems that have sustained mankind for tens of thousands of years were still functioning. Given the nature of human beings and the political and economic systems that we have created, rebuilding those bedrock human needs has seemed impossible. But perhaps Earth Day has evolved beyond the short term and the immediate. More and more people are understanding that if we correct what is wrong in our food systems we will be doing more good than has been done in all the Earth Days on record.
I am not a great believer in food certifications because they are often misleading and easily abused. They also work from the old Earth Day rubric of, “if we correct it now, we will be all right.” The facts seem to say the opposite, “unless we reclaim some of the ground we have lost, things will come to a premature bad end.” That is why the framework for a new food certification that landed on my desk hit like a ray of sunlight. The developers of the Regenerative Organic Certification understand that our ecological challenges can often be traced to our damaged food system and the damaged soil we have nearly worn out.
This new certification has at its base the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (USDA Organic). Inside that organic certification are solid guidelines that make better food available and our Earth Day goals much more important than anything we imagined in 1970. But these guidelines go farther than any certification to date. The key is in the word “regenerative”. The guidelines seem to shout out that we need, not only to adapt better ways forward, but to reach back in time and correct the damage we have done. We have moved on from picking up trash in the road ditches to vastly more complicated, and crucial, issues. In addition to USDA Organics guidelines, Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) has added categories of regulation that include Animal Welfare, Farmer and Worker Fairness, and perhaps most important, Soil Health and Land Management. Hard to understand carbon sequestration has replaced the simple collecting of pop bottles. But, at last, a line is being thrown to the abused baseline of human life on Earth.
So, if you’re like me, and a bit jaded about the value of Earth Day. Get a hold of a copy of this new food certification and take a look at what 47 years of earnest thought has brought us. Finally, we are beginning to realize that, while most of what we have been doing is cosmetic, Earth Day is important. It has matured. The future is much more complicated and dire than we thought but a meaningful dialogue has begun and the battle is joined.