Celebrating Earth Day in the time of COVID-19

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day – April 22, 2020 –  and many global events to celebrate this milestone have been cancelled.  Communities are wondering whether it is even appropriate to celebrate or acknowledge this yearly event, when people typically gather in natural settings, parks and green places, to celebrate our natural resources and our role in preserving them.  In the US we recognize that our environment has come a long way in 50 years, and Earth Day has become the “largest secular observance in the world” (earthday.org). However, we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic that has shut down many of our businesses and cities in ways that we have never seen before, with millions unemployed, millions struggling to make ends meet, and millions infected with a disease that has a high mortality rate and no known vaccine yet.  Is it even possible to celebrate nature at a time like this?

Absolutely. The current crisis shows us that, now more than ever, we need to unite around caring for our health, our lives, and our planet.  The theme for Earth Day 2020, after all, is climate action. The first Earth Day arose out of crisis. It was a time of oil spill disasters, factories spewing pollution and darkening the skies, and Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River catching on fire.  More than 20 million Americans – one tenth of the population at the time – participated in group activities, tree plantings, protests and marches. Their voices and their advocacy showed leaders that our environment matters, and that legislation was needed to protect it and to protect our health.  Their actions helped give rise to legislation like the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. In 2016, the United Nations chose Earth Day as the day to sign the Paris Climate Agreements into force.

First Earth Day, April 22, 1970: Fifth Avenue, NYC, filled with thousands of people. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

In a time such as this, many are realizing that things will not be returning to “normal” after the threat of this pandemic passes.  We will be re-building our economy, our cities, our lives, and even the way we interact with each other after this crisis. If we can let go of the old, we can make way for something new to emerge. This crisis has pointed out continuing racial and health disparities that, in the end, hurt us all.  Ending the climate emergency isn’t just about reducing our emissions, it is about re-building our infrastructure to be sustainable, it is about strengthening our social safety nets, and it is about treating each other better – and more equitably – just as much as it is about treating the Earth better. Communities can plan virtual activities on Earth Day to help remind us that we should look forward to new structures, and to better ways to live together safely and healthily. We can still take actions, we can advocate by contacting our elected leaders, and we can still share ideas for protecting our planet and our future.

Earth Day is just one day in April, but it symbolizes a way of thinking, living, and growing that can permeate every day of the year.  This Earth Day, at the same time that we are safeguarding our communities against a pandemic, we can play our part in speaking up for our planet, virtually and safely.  We can take time to remember and celebrate the awesome beauty, balance, and life contained within the green and vast spaces we visit and love.  So let’s resolve to ramp up our advocacy for a better planet, a healthier climate, and a brighter and more just future for all – and turn crisis into opportunity.

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