In Honor of Earth Day

April 19, 2008

For those working to protect the environment, the month of April is like New Year’s; the arrival of spring reminds us of the beauty and majesty of the natural environment.  We renew our resolve to protect that environment and Earth Day festivities help to educate and engage individuals and communities on a range of environmental issues. In light of all this, it makes sense that the Goldman Fund announces its annual Goldman Environmental Prize winners every April. Once again this year, six environmental activists, one from each continent (except Antarctica), received this prestigious award.  And once again, I am fortunate enough to know one of the recipients: Marina Rikhvanova from Russia.  Marina’s organization, Baikal Environmental Wave, is one of the cornerstone environmental NGOs in her country.  Despite a government which has become increasingly hostile towards the NGO community, Marina and her colleagues can claim some amazing accomplishments.  First and foremost was the successful fight to keep construction of the world’s longest oil pipeline away from the world’s deepest fresh water lake, Lake Baikal.  Oil and gas development are not the only threats to the lake and the surrounding region.  Marina is now leading the effort to stop the construction of a uranium enrichment center near the lake.  Taking on both the oil industry and the nuclear industry in Russia is no small task and Marina does this despite personal and professional risks.  Not everyone faces such daunting challenges, but recognizing those who do can and should inspire us to do more to protect the natural world around us in ways big and small.

Over the last several years award shows in the entertainment world have become a dime a dozen–it’s not just the Golden Globes, Oscars and Grammys…now there are a plethora of award events from which to choose. While the quantity has increased, I can’t say the same for the quality. More often than not these shows seem to be more about self-promotion and self-congratulation than acknowledging true merit.

Two environmental awards this week defy that trend and, unlike the Oscars, they don’t have to try hard to be “green.” On Monday (April 23), the Goldman Environmental Awards were announced in San Francisco. These annual awards are given to individuals from each continent except Antarctica to celebrate the achievements of local activists. Two years ago I had the privilege of personally knowing a Goldman Award winner, Kaisha Atakhanova, from Kazakhstan who led a grassroots campaign to stop the import of nuclear waste into her country. This year the recipients hail from Canada, Zambia, Mongolia, Peru, Ireland and Iceland and their individual efforts led to the preservation of a boreal forest, the establishment of a sustainable community development program, the protection of water resources from unregulated mining, the creation of a national reserve, the cessation of an illegally approved pipeline, and the protection of salmon. While the achievements themselves are clearly noteworthy, perhaps the more important achievement is the example the award recipients have set.

The Goldman Environmental Award has been called “the Nobel Prize for the environment” and it brings a great deal of attention and interest from those in and out of the environmental world. On a less grand scale, but just as important in my mind, are the awards the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA) gives out every year during its DC Days activities. I was fortunate enough to be present at last night’s (Tuesday, April 25) celebration where a number of activists, including one from Russia, were honored for their efforts to stop the spread of nuclear contamination, defend affected communities and fight the nuclear weapons complex. The most coveted award is the grassroots award goes to an individual who has made a difference at the local level and exemplifies the spirit of ANA. This year’s winner was Bobbie Paul, executive director of the Atlanta affiliate of Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND).

I don’t know Bobbie personally, nor do I know any of this year’s Goldman Award winners. What I do know is that their victories and achievements stretch far beyond them as individuals. Their victories are the victories of their communities and countries. Their victories are our victories because they are each doing their part to make this world a safer, cleaner, better place.

And for that I say THANK YOU.