The streets are eerily quiet on this Earth Day.
The coronavirus has silenced us—either by killing us or locking us down. Social distancing has reined in gatherings at restaurants, bars, theaters, concerts, sporting events, and demonstrations.
What a way to celebrate a 50th birthday.
The first Earth Day occurred on April 22, 1970. It drew 20 million people into the streets to protest pollution. At the time, air pollution was so severe you couldn’t see more than two blocks in some American cities. Some rivers and streams were so polluted we could not swim or fish in them.
Imagine 20 million people—10 percent of the total population of the United States in 1970—demanding change. They were organized not with social media and flash mobs, but with mail, telephones, and mimeograph machines. That night CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reported on the event noting Earth Day’s message: “Act or die.”
The pressure of that first Earth Day encouraged America to clean up its act. Its energy inspired the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and led to the passage of important legislation to protect us and our planet, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
In the following years, the movement grew global, sweeping through major cities around the world. Generations grew up planting trees, picking up trash in parks, making environmental posters and banners, and hitting the streets in protest and celebration on this day.
So we saved the planet, right?
Not So Fast
Now, here we are, 50 years later, and there is still a crying need for Earth Day. Scientists around the world have been shouting from the rooftops of their labs, ringing alarms, warning us that we have been too slow, that we have maybe a dozen years to act. A dozen years before the earth will be beyond repair and our eco-systems will begin to fail. Before we go from That’s Too Bad to It’s Too Late.
And to make matters worse, the current profit-first, people-last administration is intentionally weakening many of the environmental protections granted to us in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act,and many other environmental laws. The result: Industrial polluters will get more money, while we get unbreathable air, undrinkable water, and toxic land.
The irony of all this is that the coronavirus pandemic has had some benefit on the environment. With people staying at home, cars garaged, airplanes grounded, and businesses shuttered, the planet has been able to breathe a sigh of relief. Cities that haven’t seen the sky for years report their smog is dissipating. Waterways are cleaner and clearer.
Of course, this can’t last. Human life must resume eventually. But think about what the pandemic has proven to us. We have seen what is possible when the global community attacks a problem en masse. We can win, if we stick together. Why shouldn’t our next victory be against the climate crisis?
So as we sit at home on this Earth Day twiddling our thumbs, perhaps we should think about how we can live differently, how we can advocate and vote for change, how we can be agents of change.
Both the coronavirus and the climate crisis are threats to our existence. With both, we have no choice: we must act or die.
Maybe someday we will again be able to make the streets roar with protest on Earth Day, but in the meantime, it is wise to remember that inaction can be action as well. It is as my pandemic-weary daughter says to her infant son, “Sleep, little one, when you wake we have to keep doing nothing to make a difference.”
One huge part of the climate crisis is the plight of pollinators—butterflies, bees, birds, and insects facing extinction because of humankind’s intervention in their lives. Read more about one family’s fight for pollinators in my novel Crow Calling.