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This Earth Day, salute the heroes

The world will be celebrating Earth Day for the 40th time on April 22 this year. Many people may have forgotten the visionary leadership that brought about Earth Day celebration on April 22 each year. The founder of Earth Day is the late US Senator Gaylord Nelson, one of the greatest champions of environment, not only in the US but worldwide. As a person concerned with the welfare of human society he took proactive positions on environmental issues, of course, but also held hearings, for instance, on the safety of combined oral contraceptive pills. As a result of these hearings, side-effect disclosures became a requirement for the pill in patient's interest, which represented the first such disclosure for a pharmaceutical drug.

Senator Nelson, who announced his plans for Earth Day in 1969, later wrote that the germination of the idea for an Earth Day goes back to November 1962 when he decided to bring environment into political limelight, once and for all. That was when he enlisted the support of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and even persuaded President John F Kennedy to go on a national conservation tour. President Kennedy did so in a five-day, 11-state conservation tour in September 1963. However, this did not bring the environment into the limelight as Senator Nelson had intended, but it did represent the initial genesis of Earth Day.

The announcement of Earth Day came during Nelson's address in Seattle in September 1969 to a gathering known those days as "Teach-in". He said he felt the need to organise a huge grassroots protest over what was happening to our environment. He announced this by marking a day for Earth Day in spring of 1970.

This was the first time that the office of a US Senator was energised to work on the environment over the next several months. Senator Gaylord Nelson also showed his genius for mobilising human talent by getting a young student from Harvard University, Denis Hayes, to take on the responsibility of coordinating the very first Earth Day in 1970.

It is not unusual for institutions and practices to continue without regard for the memory of individuals who are behind them. For instance, another great hero of recent times is Rachel Carson who, as a young woman, battled the forces of status quo alone and intensely in bringing to the attention of public and politicians the danger of excessive reliance on chemicals, pesticides and insecticides which were poisoning our ecosystem with widespread and long-term implications of a serious nature.

A large number of corporate organisations and leaders of business viciously attacked Rachel Carson in her time, but the world today knows that her warnings were valid and visionary. This unsung hero should have had the world celebrating her centenary in 2007. Sadly, we didn't remember her that year, when she would have been 100 years old. Senator Gaylord Nelson's centenary will fall on June 4, 2016. This would be the eve of World Environment Day that year, and I hope the world will not forget him on that occasion.

The reason why I am emphasising personalities over the movement to reduce environmental pollution is because we need to be reminded of the human spirit that moves revolutionary ideas in a visible manner, as Senator Gaylord Nelson did through the celebration of Earth Day.
Lives such as his are a source of enormous inspiration to young and old alike and certainly for those who are still children and whose future can be darkened by the continuing neglect of the environment and the earth's precious ecosystems. Hence, on Earth Day 2010 it is important for us to be reminded of the original founder of this celebration, Senator Gaylord Nelson, and to convey a tribute to Denis Hayes who is now 66 years old and very much the torchbearer of Senator Nelson's legacy and his passion for protecting the environment.

The 40th anniversary of Earth Day is particularly relevant because the time for action is now certainly at hand, even if long overdue. In the case of climate change, for instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report has clearly assessed that if we wish to limit future temperature increase to between 2.0-2.4oC, global emissions will have to peak no later than 2015. The Copenhagen Accord has laid down a ceiling of 2oC as the temperature increase that the world must target. If this goal is to be converted into serious intent, then emissions of greenhouse gases have to be reduced with a sense of urgency.
Earth Day 2010 clearly provides us with an opportunity to give substance to such a desire, and support actions by the public, particularly where no other option exists.

In other words, the time has come to move on, and Earth Day this year must represent a distinct departure from those which were celebrated in previous years. It is not enough to merely highlight problems today, but to actually take in hand measures that would help solve those problems.

In India each day brings several reminders of the major damage that we have done to our ecosystems and the problems we encounter with polluted air, water and soil. Let all Indians, at least, come up with specific measures and affirm their resolve to implement action on this year's Earth Day.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the problem of pollution afflicting this planet would require action not only on the part of national governments but, more importantly, communities at the grassroots level. This is why action must begin in earnest on Earth Day, this 22nd of April, 2010.

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