Dear EarthTalk: Now that Earth Day is 50 years old, I’m wondering how it originally started and whether the Coronavirus put a damper on the celebration this year?
—Mary W. Seattle, WA
Indeed, on April 22, Earth Day celebrated its 50th anniversary. Back in 1970, some 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate against pollution and other environmental ills stemming from 150 years of industrial development.
The idea for that first Earth Day sprung from Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was troubled by the environmental deterioration he witnessed around the country and thought he could borrow some of the organizing tactics from the student-led anti-Vietnam War movement to infuse youth energy into raising public consciousness about air and water pollution. Nelson brought on a young lawyer/activist named Denis Hayes to make it happen. At first the idea was to hold a nationwide “teach-in” on college campuses but it soon morphed into a nationwide celebration that all Americans could join, with thousands of rallies happening simultaneously within communities and on college campuses coast-to-coast.
Earth Day continued to be celebrated across the country throughout the 1970s and 1980s and in 1990 went global. Hayes and company mobilized leaders on every continent, with some 200 million people in 141 countries taking part in the festivities. Environmentalists credit the 1990 celebration with giving a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helping pave the way for 1992’s Earth Summit in Brazil.
While organizers of this year’s 50th anniversary of Earth Day had big plans for mass global events focusing on reducing waste, fighting climate change and transitioning to clean energy, the global Coronavirus lockdown led them down a different path. Instead of getting together and locking hands in person to show popular support for strong environmental protections, activists and sympathizers gathered virtually all week, tuning into live talks and other streaming and interactive online programming curated by Earth Day Network and its partner Exponential Roadmap.
Although it’s too early to tell, just because green-minded people all over the world couldn’t get together physically to celebrate doesn’t mean this year’s Earth Day will be less impactful. For one, we’ve all now gotten a taste of how clean our environment could be if we kept up just some of the restraint on resource use that the lockdown has caused. Covid-19 may also be helping more of us to contemplate other aspects of our human relationship with our environment, especially since the virus was brought on in part by human-induced climate change and by dangerous forms of animal agribusiness.
As we enjoy cleaner air, more birdsong and parades of wildlife in our own backyards, not to mention the huge uptick in multi-generational residential gardening efforts. Earth Day has provided all of us with at least one day to focus our daily activities—even in quarantine—through the lens of the planet and what we can do to leave it better than we found it. Quarantine or not, the annual celebration of Earth Day serves as a reminder that Earth Day is every day. So if you didn’t plant a tree, re-think your household waste stream, or resolve to start biking to work once the office opens back up, maybe now is the time?
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