The Green Scene

If you want to understand the importance of air quality, ask yourself how long you can hold your breath. That’s what environmental scientist Meng-Dawn Cheng of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory told a group of journalists gathered in Knoxville, Tenn., last month.

A summer photo taken in the Shining Rock Wilderness near Asheville shows a dead hemlock. The EPA’s national ambient air standards don’t directly set limits on low visibility—such as the haze that obscures the distant views in this picture—Cheng pointed out. But they do address levels of carbon dioxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, particulates, ozone and sulfur dioxide, all of which can contribute to low visibility. As a result, the air quality on our mountaintops is often on a par with Los Angeles, he said. And though those pollutants represent a mere 1 to 2 percent of the air we breathe, they have a big impact on human health as well as local and regional environmental quality. Increased air pollution also disrupts the heat-energy balance in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change, Cheng explained.

The tree’s the thing: Acid rain, woolly adelgids and climate change may all be contributing to the demise of Western North Carolina’s hemlocks. Photo by Margaret Williams

As for the consequences of not dealing with air pollution, “How long can you hold your breath?” he repeated.

President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act in 1970, the same year the first Earth Day was held. But what does Earth Day mean to people now, almost 40 years later?

Xpress posed that question to assorted folks in the community. In response, Richard Fireman of North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light sent a copy of a 1971 Pogo cartoon: The philosophical possum walks gingerly through the forest, complaining that all the trash is hurting his bare feet. Stopping to consider it, he remarks, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Here are a few other responses, some edited for length:

“Every day is Earth Day. Humans have been less inclined to see the connection between their consumer lifestyle and the pollution of our waterways, air and food, [but] the more we appreciate what it has to offer, the more we will try to protect it. What can we do in our own backyard to make a difference? And how can we join together with others to affect policy in our community, our state and our country? It’s often the little things that people do—banding together with others—that make enough ripples in the larger societal pond that ultimately effects change on a grand scale.”
—David Weintraub, director, Environmental & Conservation Organization

“Earth Day means an opportunity to remind people that, as noted in the companion book to the Live Earth concerts, refusing meat is the “single most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.” Despite all the greenwash surrounding local farms that raise animals, science reveals the “inconvenient truth” that eating meat is like driving an SUV, while a vegan diet is analogous to riding a bicycle.”
—Stewart David, animal-rights activist

“Doing good is not just a religious act. And respecting the Earth is not solely for ecologists. The consequences of ignoring Earth Day are everywhere—[such as in] the pesticides delivered on a wet day on a lawn near a creek in Fairview. Earth Day is consciousness at the skin level—from inside the room of a cancer patient at Mission Hospital to the oil leak under my car. From a G-20 [economic summit] in Europe to an earthquake in Italy, our planet is tired of us all and is asking for remission, for a break and for a retreat.”
—François Manavit, Fairview resident

“So many rocks, so many landforms, so little time to understand.”
—Rick Wooten, state geologist

“Earth Day is about remembering that we all depend on the Earth for our survival, however far removed from these natural systems our modern lives may appear to be. It also means acting to protect the ecosystems we depend on, re-localizing our society and transforming it into something just and sustainable, not based on profits, consumption and unsustainable economic growth. Come celebrate Earth Day by filling the streets of Charlotte and demanding that Duke Energy cancel [its] new coal plant [at Cliffside near Rutherfordton]. A massive demonstration in downtown Charlotte and civil disobedience at Duke’s headquarters is planned. … Come on out and show the Earth some love!”
—Abigail Singer, Asheville Rising Tide

“I have over 20,100 Earth Days logged and zero non-Earth Days. Can’t imagine doing them anywhere else. I will say the old girl could be treated a little nicer than she is; she could use a nice spa treatment. How about everybody grab a broom and tidy up a little bit?”
—“Seeker,” Xpress forum contributor

“A childhood friend [reminded me that as] a youngster, I spent Earth Day sweeping our neighborhood streets and picking up any trash on the roads that I found. It’s no wonder I married a man who opened Curbside Recycling 19 years ago, and spent many years doing Earth Day events and lessons at the elementary schools. [Earth Day] means providing for the Earth—maybe picking up trash, planting a tree or educating the public.”
—Shari Johnson, business owner, Sanctuary of Stuff

“In 1969, Sen. Gaylord Nelson conceived the first Earth Day. He observed how college students had raised the Vietnam War debate to the national platform. The Cuyahoga River was on fire; DDT was wiping out the bald eagle. Using the teach-in tactic, he organized Earth Day 1970, which provoked a decade of environmental legislation. What did it take? Effective leadership, strategy and national concern. Earth Day 2009: Climate change threatens the future of life on this planet for millions of people. … What will it take to cope with this pressing threat? According to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, not a green party [but] a revolution. For this Earth Day, I pledge to my grandchildren that I will not wait quietly.”
—Margo N. Flood, executive director, Warren Wilson College Environmental Leadership Center

“We have only one planet, and for 1/365th of each year, we ask its residents to seek to understand our Earth.”
—Mark Combs, director, Asheville Public Works Department

“The term conservative means “to conserve,” and that is what Earth Day is about. … I will be in Raleigh [this month] visiting the legislators and complaining that we put sludge from human waste on fields as fertilizer—even for food crops and cattle feed. We don’t think about the fact that heavy metals will bioaccumulate in the grass and then in the meat of the cow that we eat. This is called biomagnification. When you have your next salad, please remember that treated human wastewater is used to irrigate organic and conventionally grown lettuce. Then eat your heavy metals in the meat from the cow. Yes, Earth Day means to me that we better wake up and remember that we will have to use this Earth as long as we want human populations to survive. It’s time to conserve or be conservative: Come join me in that battle. Celebrate Earth Day COMPLETELY this year.”
—Don Yelton, local activist

Send your environmental news to, or call 251-1333, ext. 152.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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