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Sue Lani Madsen: Knowing your place in the universe on Earth Day

Earth Day is an annual reminder of our connection to the planet. How we define that relationship depends on where we see our place in the universe. What is our responsibility for the Earth and how do we live it out?

When the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, there were big human-centered problems to be faced and they required big solutions. Most of the solutions were about not doing stupid stuff anymore, like not dumping so much industrial waste into Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River that a spark from a passing train could set it ablaze. It caught fire for the ninth time in 1969.

It was an embarrassing episode and caught the attention of Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who announced the idea for a grassroots environmental movement later that year. The movement figuratively caught fire and Earth Day is now “the largest secular civic event in the world,” according to the Earth Day Network, celebrated on and around April 22 by over a billion people worldwide.

After the birth of the Earth Day movement, a group called Keep America Beautiful produced a now controversial public service announcement that played for a decade. If you tuned into a television set any time in the 1970s, you saw a white actor playing the “crying Indian” in a canoe, a single tear running down his cheek as he watched American culture trashing the environment.

It played into a couple of stereotypes about Native American culture. The National Congress of American Indians now controls the controversial ad and limits its use. Modern Native culture is more complex than wearing feathers and paddling about in birchbark canoes.

But it also signaled a growing respect for Indigenous knowledge that had been dismissed by early colonists, who interpreted the pre-existing North American societies as more primitive compared to Europe’s technological achievements. They missed the connection between Indigenous belief systems respecting the Earth and biblical calls for godly stewardship.

And to be blunt, an industrializing America didn’t live out its Judeo-Christian stewardship covenant with the planet.

Fifty years ago Expo ’74 was the first international exposition to focus on the environment instead of human technological progress. Before Earth Day, trade-offs favoring growth at the expense of the environment had led to expanding industries filling rivers and the air with waste. After Earth Day, large -scale government interventions were adopted to balance the corporate point-source pollution that had been allowed to flourish. It was the right reaction for the size of the problem.

There is an underlying tension in American politics between a belief in big government hegemony versus smaller government and local control. The belief in anthropogenic climate change has been used to rationalize more and more control in the hands of centralized authority. Only government is big enough to hold the reins of a planet.

But are those reins ours to hold ? Since that first Earth Day we’ve shifted the narrative about our place in the universe from man as a part of an unfolding creation to man as an existential threat to the planet.

Popular culture in the decades surrounding Expo ’74 featured a 1927 poem by Max Ehrmann, titled “Desiderata.” The poem shaped a generation of young boomers:

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.

It’s a far different message than today’s generation is being fed, telling them it is their duty to save the planet and to be very afraid. By all means, celebrate Earth Day this weekend, not out of desperation over holding the fate of the planet in your hands but because the weather forecast is pretty decent for Saturday. It will be a glorious day to be a child of the universe.

And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Spokane Earth Day events

Spokane Riverkeepers:, Saturday, 10 a.m. to noon at High Bridge and People’s Park, picking up trash to keep the river beautiful.

The Lands Council:, hosting “Earth Fest” at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon, “celebrating Mother Nature with more than just tree planting.”

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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