• Our Shared Waters

Earth Day at 50: How the Environmental Movement has Changed us

This article was originally published in the Reading Eagle.


(This is a five-part series. Read part one.)


In the early 1970s, Reading-based architect William Vitale had to make a special request to find environmentally-friendly paint without volatile organic compounds. 


Even after the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, it was still not common for carpets, flooring or paints to be "green."


Now, 50 years later, products are available from most stores, and green construction has gone mainstream. 


Yet those involved most intimately with environmental policy and conservation find there is much work that still needs to be done 50 years later. 


"The origins of Earth Day and our most important environmental regulations are intertwined, said David Coyne, a principal at Liberty Environmental in Reading. "Earth Day has its roots in community-level eco-activism, while early environmental statutes such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were driven primarily by the need for improved public health policy on the legislative front."


Both the activism and the resulting legislation was a cultural reaction to the growing concern over the effects that humans were having on the environment, especially in the booming industrial decades following the Second World War, Coyne said.


"The legacy of Earth Day has been to keep the importance of clean air, clean water and clean soil at the forefront of public consciousness, and that’s been reflected in the evolution our environmental laws up to the present day," Coyne said. "Concepts such as environmental site assessments, Brownfields cleanup and wastewater treatment couldn’t exist without this core public awareness.


"Earth Day serves as an annual reminder of these ideas — that a cleaner environment means healthier, stronger communities."


Grown tame 


Troy Turner was not alive for the first Earth Day, but he lives its legacy as a coordinator of the Sunrise Movement in Berks County. Sunrise is a youth-led political movement that advocates for action on climate change.


"It's important to recognize that the first Earth Day was not what it is today," said Turner, 28, who grew up in Sinking Spring. "It was 20 million people taking to the streets in noncompliance."


He said the protests and teach-ins made it inevitable that a Republican administration would enact sweeping environmental regulations, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. 


"Over the last 50 years, Earth Day has gotten tame," Turner said. "All you do is plant a tree and you get to say that you care about the environment."


Fresh from advocating for the Green New Deal, the group has taken on advocating for a "People's Bailout" in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.


He said the concern is for crises that could follow the pandemic as fire season comes to the West Coast and the tornado and hurricane seasons. Vulnerable people and communities, already hurt by economic and health crises, would face even more devastation.


"We really need to come back to build a deep base for people power," Turner said. 


Education equals empowerment


Kim Murphy, executive director of Berks Nature, also carries with her the roots of the environmental movement.


She recalled having an eco-action patch on her hip-hugger pants in the second or third grade. She would grow to appreciate the importance of thinking globally and acting locally.

"It's one thing to have access and knowledge and another thing to have an intent to act," Murphy said.


Berks Nature, formerly the Berks County Conservancy, has broadened its role from conservation and ecological restoration to focus on education. It's added a nature preschool, a summer and an annual state of the environment to help people understand the local effects of policy and activities. Educating people is a step to empowering them.


"I think that laws are made because people don’t always do the right thing," Murphy said.

The organization has stepped into supporting watershed associations and monitoring water quality as the state has stepped back from it. It helps farmers and communities use best practices to protect watersheds.


Berks Nature has documented the positive financial impact of conservation. 


Murphy said funding for conservation changes and the coronavirus could upend it again. But she takes the long view. The immediate needs may be for food and health care, but conservation has long-lasting impact. 


Schuylkill River focus


Since its inception in 1974 the focus of the Schuylkill River Greenways has been on connecting people to a river that flows from Schuylkill County through Berks County to Philadelphia, said Elaine Paul Schaefer, executive director.


As a heritage corridor, its mission is broader than protecting the environment and encompasses economic development. That mission makes it unique among heritage corridors nationally.


"We are more environmentally focused than most heritage areas because our area is focused around a river," Schaefer said. 


The Schuylkill River has defined the region since people settled in Pennsylvania. 


"In recent years our focus on the environment has increased exponentially," Schaefer said. 

As funding for the Department of Environmental Protection has been slashed, she said, nonprofits such as the Greenways have stepped up.


The Schuylkill River Restoration fund is an example. Raising money from private sources, the organization directs it to projects that directly improve water quality.


At the headwaters of the Schuylkill, efforts are focused on remediation of damage by the coal mining. In the middle of the river, grants are directed toward countering agricultural and industrial pollution. At the bottom of the river the focus is on stormwater management.


"Our approach is one of getting communities and people to invest in the river," she said. "The goal is to have people become stewards and ambassadors of the river themselves."


When people invest time in recreation on the river and care for its trails by picking up trash, they are more apt to elect people to office who also care about the river.


The Schuylkill, which had a reputation as one of the most polluted rivers, underwent one of the earliest environmental cleanups in the 1940s, said Schaeffer. A massive public works project dredged silt and coal waste. 


Schaefer believes the Schuylkill's quality for outdoor recreation rivals destination rivers like the Lehigh and Susquehanna, but it still carries its old reputation.


A new project of simultaneous water quality monitoring would document the quality up and down the river, she said. The Greenways is working with Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, Bartrams Gardens and Berks Nature to adopt the same monitoring protocols and share metrics on the health of the river.


The Greenways has surveyed the public and found that people perceive it to be much more polluted than it actually is.


"We are working hard to make sure our river gets the respect it deserves," she said. 


Schaefer said the environmental movement today is made up of a variety of organizations with different roles.


"Some are more litigious, more aggressive. Some more grassroots, creating an army of people who care," she said. "It's a pretty broad approach at this point. There's a place for everyone. Environmental organizations coexist and coordinate very well. As the movement grows it's getting more diverse."


A different look

Environmentalists today also wear business suits, said Scot Case, an environmental consultant and a member of Reading's Environmental Advisory Council.


"A lot more businesses are recognizing they affect and are affected by the environment," Case said. "Environmental issues are now taught in business school."


Impact on the environment is discussed as people design products and new companies are started. 


"It's a huge shift from companies being the bad guys to now some companies are doing more than government to protect the environment," Case said.


Companies such as Unilever and Patagonia are making sustainability of the environment key corporate goals.


"Starbucks announced a goal to become a restorative company," Case said.


That means the company aims to add to or improve the environment not just prevent degradation.


"Big companies such as Walmart and Ikea are pledging 100 percent renewable energy," Case said. 


And now the drive to confront climate change is coming from top investors. In his annual letter to chief executives this year, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink urged them to consider the climate.


"Investors are increasingly reckoning with these questions and recognizing that climate risk is investment risk," Fink wrote. "Indeed, climate change is almost invariably the top issue that clients around the world raise with BlackRock."


BlackRock is an investor in steel alloy manufacturer Carpenter, which has manufacturing facilities in Berks County.


At Mitsubishi Advanced Materials in Reading, the idea of sustainability is embodied in the corporate philosophy known as "KAITEKI."  It encompasses carbon footprint reduction, utility costs and a program in which the company collects unused products to repurpose or recycle them and sell them.


"Consumers turned to companies and said you, big companies, need to make it easier for us to do the right things," Case said.


The big change is that people realized that it is possible to make money by going green.


"No one wants to be buying things from companies that are hurting the planet," Case said. "Companies should have a higher purpose than just making money."


Regulation is still needed, he said, to ensure a minimum safety net. 


As big companies adopt sustainability practices, it ripples through the supply chain, Case said.


"It (sustainability) is a license to operate — if your company isn't protective of environment and workers, people will work to put you out of business, so it's kind of table stakes," Case said. "Most fascinating to me is even industry you won’t expect we’re seeing sustainability pop up."


His example? In the oil and gas section, BP has announced goals to reduce its contribution to climate change.


"There is in the environmental arena a nice continuum from advocates always suggesting companies are not doing as much as they should or could," Case said. "There are also environment groups getting those big companies to change voluntarily because it is the fastest way to clean up the environment.


"Some environmental groups and advocates use spreadsheets and suits rather than put on hiking boots and hugging a tree."