For several years, part of my family and I lived in the suburbs just outside Cleveland. When you think of Cleveland, what comes to mind? Maybe you involuntarily shiver, as you imagine cold and snow, lots of snow. Or you hear the lush sounds of the Cleveland Orchestra. Or you recall LeBron James returning home to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA championship. Or you marvel at Lake Erie, so vast it looks like an ocean.

But for many people one image of Cleveland is indelible. Thanks to decades of industrial pollution, the Cuyahoga River caught fire (but not for the first time) back in 1969.

This river empties into Lake Erie. So can you imagine swimming in that lake or fishing and boating in it? But that’s exactly what my family and I did when we lived in the area. What happened? In the early 1970s, with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act, the waterways of our country underwent a massive clean-up. Businesses voluntarily stopped dumping pollution into the waterways, as well as the soil and air.

Just kidding about the voluntary part.

Businesses stopped polluting so much because of tougher government regulations. And tougher government regulations came about because the American people, and their courageous and tenacious elected representatives, demanded them.

On April 22, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970, just one day, but part of larger progress to protect the environment for ourselves and for future generations. More than a billion people are involved in this movement, because the environment can be protected and its destruction still can be reversed. There isn’t much time, but it’s not too late to renew our present environment and to lessen the impact of climate change as it rushes toward us. Will we learn?

In addition to tragic suffering and death, COVID-19 might also teach us some environmental lessons. We’ve long been warned about the loss of small family farms over recent decades and the dangers of mega-agribusiness with its overreliance on unsustainable fossil fuels and deadly pesticides, and the concentrating of the food supply in a few locations. Witness, for example, what is happening now as huge meat-processing plants are struggling to protect workers and continue operating. Imagine how much better off we would be with more, not fewer, small family farms working in environmentally friendly ways.

Disgracefully, the Trump administration has spent much of the last three-plus years dragging us backward on environmental protections. And this regression has only accelerated while we have been focused on combating COVID-19. Auto mileage requirements have been reversed and this will bring not only more pollution but financial costs, premature death and increased climate change. Clean power plant rules are being relaxed. Care for some more mercury in the air you breathe? Water safety regulations are being discarded. And, as usual, minorities and the poor will be hurt first and worst.

If humanity is going to survive and thrive, what’s required is a fundamental change in the way we see ourselves and the way we view the environment.

Christian theologian Jürgen Moltmann points out, “It is not that the Earth is entrusted to us: we are entrusted to the Earth. The Earth can live without us human beings, but we cannot live without the Earth.” He goes on to say, “There is an old joke: Two planets meet in space. The one asks: ‘How are you?’ The other one replies, ‘Oh, I’m not at all well. I’m ill. I have homo sapiens.’ The other answers, ‘I’m sorry to hear that. That’s really bad. I have had it too. But never mind — it will pass.’”

Will the horrible joke be on us and upon our children and grandchildren? Or will we awaken from our slumber in time not merely to address COVID-19 but to make the policy changes needed so that every day is Earth Day?

Jeff Paschal is a Presbyterian minister, writer, and News & Record columnist. Contact him at jeffpaschal@gmail.com.

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