“Next year will see a milestone Earth Day: a 50th anniversary. As it approaches, we need more than ever a global outpouring of commitment, energy and enthusiasm to create a new environmental standard. Earth Day 2020 can be the catalyst that galvanizes an unparalleled global collaboration.”
Little did I know then, though, that on Earth Day 2020, we would be in the midst of a global pandemic. Little did I know then that instead of the crowds that I hoped would take to the streets again after 50 years to demand action on climate change now that we would all be sheltering-in-place for safety.
So, in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, is it even possible for Earth Day 2020 to recapture and approximate the original’s power?
Earth Day’s success five decades ago was part right timing and part Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson. It took place just at the moment when environmental awareness was beginning to peak and when the energy of the 1960s was ready to move beyond the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.
That’s precisely when Gaylord Nelson’s idea of a teach-in not to oppose a war but to support environmental protections defined Earth Day as an educational, locally controlled and mass-participatory event. At a September 1969 conference in Seattle, Washington, Senator Nelson announced that a protest would take place the following spring. He chose the date of April 22, 1970, a Wednesday, saying: “The purpose of Earth Day is to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy.”
Gaylord Nelson believed that the reason Earth Day worked is that it organized itself. The idea was put “out there”; and more than 20 million Americans grabbed onto it, made it their own and marched to demand environmental action.
In contrast, 30 years ago, on Earth Day 1990, a far better funded, better planned and more elaborate anniversary event drew more than a million people to New York City’s Central Park and 200,000 to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, it had few lasting effects.
That very first Earth Day had a huge influence on me; and as I was growing up, Gaylord Nelson was one of my heroes. That’s why I was incredibly honored when Tia Nelson, now the Climate Change Program Director for the Outrider Foundation and Gaylord Nelson’s daughter, recently contacted me and alerted me about a 50th anniversary Earth Day film. It’s titled When the Earth Moves, and it is presented, above, in its entirety.
What’s particularly enchanting about When the Earth Moves is that it brings back to mind the original vision of Earth Day. It makes clear that Earth Day 2020 can’t belong just to long-time environmentalists and climate-change activists. Earth Day 2020 must be a bipartisan, multigenerational and social movement in which we all play an active part.
In the film, you’ll not only hear from those you might expect—Tia Nelson and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Senator Gaylord Nelson in archival footage—but former South Carolina Republican U.S. Congressman and republicEn founder Bob Inglis, and youth activist and Sunrise Movement cofounder Varshini Prakash.
Jason Mark, editor of Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, recently stated that a street demonstration can be a social movement’s best recruitment tool: “Gathering in a public space with like-minded people demanding political change is about far more than pressuring elected officials into action. A protest’s pageantry—the Instagrammable signs, the chants, the music—also serves as a kind of mirror that allows a movement to see itself in full and, in that self-reflection, to feel its power and strength. A rally can be a demonstration of hope or anger—what matters is simply that it’s public, a civic performance of passion. The mere spectacle can, if big and bold enough, shape the political landscape like a flood that shifts the course of a river. Or, to use another biometaphor, a protest is like a spore in a fungal web, a single node that branches out to establish new connections, which eventually blossom into an entire network before bursting out into the sun.”
While it was hoped that Earth Day 2020 would recall the original Earth Day and inspire a billion people to demand a future by marching in cities and “creating an environmental earthquake with a powerful aftershock in November,” we now know that that is impossible.
I still, however, have a lot of hope. Young people growing up today—those born after the year 2000—have never lived a year on this planet that wasn’t one of the hottest years on record. They could be described as the Climate Generation. I see this new cohort thinking that if politicians aren’t going to do anything about caring for our planet, they will have to take matters into their own hands. I see Earth Day 1970 coming back; I see it in Greta Thunberg and the millions of students following her in Fridays for Future school strikes for the climate. I see it in the 21 kids who sued the U.S. government, claiming that its actions to address climate change have been inadequate and that they endanger young people.
Perhaps for Earth Day 2020, we can’t take to the streets. This 50th anniversary might wind up being more of a “pressing the pause button”; a time for reflection: do we want to keep on living the way we have been? Just look at Los Angeles, one of the most traffic-choked cities in the nation, where the air quality has improved so much under stay-at-home orders that L.A. now has some of the cleanest air in any major city in the world. On April 22, 2020, we could think about the recent history of humans on Earth, and shake our heads in retrospect at our small-mindedness and silly skirmishes over environmental regulations. In this moment, we could take a quantum leap for safeguarding the environment.
Just like in 1970 when Gaylord Nelson saw the energy devoted to protesting the Vietnam War and thought about how we could harness that enthusiasm for the planet, can we, in 2020, look at the breathless speed of global efforts to fight the coronavirus and use some of that drive in the months to come to eradicate air, land and water pollution?
Because that could rival the first Earth Day 50 years ago.
And that may be more powerful than any street demonstration.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,