Earth Day 2020: Happy Birthday?

Today (April 22, 2020) marks the 50th anniversary of the time when a few stalwart activists – among them Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson, Republican Pete McCloskey, and Denis Hayes – were able to successfully start a global movement on the heels of one of the more volatile decades in this country’s history. On that day in 1970 I was in northern Thailand, oblivious of pretty much everything other than the war that was raging two countries over, and also the fifteen-foot cobra that crawled across my path to the communications facility where I worked. Meanwhile, about ten percent of the US population came out on that first Earth Day to be heard. The damage of unconscious poisoning of the earth was finally being acknowledged following the publishing of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and a series of environmental “events” that got the public’s attention.

Spurred on by a demonstration of public support, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. It was a different time then, when Republican President Richard M. Nixon introduced the Environmental Protection Agency. There is no doubt that we are living in a cleaner, healthier environment as a result of the momentum from that original Earth Day. That is, if one ignores the looming climate crisis. In most circles at that time the problems were “somewhere else,” in the backyards of other communities. The consumption-based economy rolled on, as did the degradation of the ecosystem that literally keeps us alive.

Fast forward to 2020; to those of us whose golden years have snuck up on us, it seems we should have made more progress in fifty years. We knew in the 70s that we were poisoning the planet, that development was wiping out forests, and that cities were choking in petroleum-based pollution. But we continued on with the daily activities of life – raising families, hanging out with friends, taking vacations, going to concerts, and leaving an ever-bigger footprint on a finite ecosystem. Ecological decline was somewhere else. Climate Change, increasingly on the radar of anyone paying attention, failed to generate action commensurate with the threat, even with the Paris Agreement and a template for action in the Green New Deal, dismissed by critics as “too expensive, impractical.” Then the year 2020 happened. Suddenly, as with wars and economic bailouts, money is no object, as should be the case when millions of lives are threatened. What seems to be escaping current leadership in the country is that the Covid-19 crisis is global, and requires global cooperation. It should be abundantly clear that Climate Change is a similarly existential threat, except that avoiding it will take more than stay-at-home orders. A fundamental shift in how we live on this planet is unavoidable, and we’re getting a taste of it in real time.

A global effort can make a difference. There have been ebbs and flows in the enthusiasm for the goals of Earth Day over the last fifty years, but there cannot have been a point in the history of mankind when the case for action was more urgent, and perhaps no better time to alter our path than at a time when “normal” has been put on hold.