Take back the planet, and not just on Earth Day

For over 40 years, Earth Day has sent a powerful message: that each of us has both the capacity and the duty to support the environment that sustains us. This is certainly a message that dedicated conservationists can get behind, but what about everyday people with busy lives, kids to raise and jobs to keep? For many, Earth Day has become a day of celebration rather than an urgent call to join a movement.

Earth Day Network, the organization behind Earth Day, cites the impressive statistic that 1 billion people participate in Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world. Participants plant trees, clean streams and resolve to recycle more. In schools around the world, students spend several weeks learning about the planet and how they can make a difference.

What really matters, though, is what people do the day after Earth Day — and for the 363 days after that. Earth Day was born out of a desire to do something. In 1970, 20 million individuals from all walks of life united to protest the deterioration of the environment, and the results included the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. Why can't Earth Day 2013 be the start of this same kind of sea change?

My colleague Sylvia Earle, a renowned oceanographer whom Time Magazine called a "Hero for the Planet," has said that the next 10 years may be more important than the last 10,000 in determining the fate of our oceans. She may as well be talking about the fate of humans. It may not be the planet that needs saving so much as we do.

These are things we deserve: a safe place to live, access to healthy food, safe air and clean water, and the opportunity to contribute to a better world. Like every parent, I want my son to live in a world that benefits from the positive actions we take today. I want him to be as optimistic as I was when I came of age and to be able to see some of the natural treasures I've been lucky enough to experience. What parent doesn't?

At the National Aquarium, we aim to inspire our guests, members and other audiences to take conservation action. Everything we do must lead to this outcome. As individuals and as communities, we need to demand clean water and air. We need to stop supporting a disposable society. We need to stop letting convenience trump conscience.

To the chagrin of many in this great state, recent legislation to decrease plastic consumption and minimize plastic pollution in Maryland failed to pass the General Assembly. Though legislation would have helped, as it has in other states, we don't need to pass laws to do the right thing.

Let me offer a few ideas: Refuse single-use bags, cups and other items. Get canvas grocery bags and reuse them. Recycle everything you can. Buy local produce. Make quality of life one of your purchasing considerations as you buy anything from a cup of coffee to a new car. Will you always be able to afford the best choice for the environment? Maybe not, but if you do it as often as you can, you'll be a more responsible consumer — and it will feel good.

While you're at it, get outside and help take back your planet. This is the season for tree plantings and spring cleanups. Whether you contribute your time at a rally or cleaning up a park in your own neighborhood, there's power in your actions.

Today, I will be observing Earth Day by working alongside many dedicated staff and volunteers at the National Aquarium as we educate our guests on how they, too, can make better choices for our environment every day.

Come tomorrow, we'll still be at it, and we'll continue the good fight every day thereafter. Together, we can and must inspire a renewed spirit so that when we talk about Earth Day, we applaud the sea changes taking effect today, not 40 years ago.

In the end, Earth Day is a celebration — and it's a movement. Will you join us?

John Racanelli is CEO of the National Aquarium. His email is jracanelli@aqua.org.

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