Earth Day at 50: A Call for a New Engagement with Our Planet

APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images

This article is presented by the Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University, co-authored by Peter Schlosser, Steven Beschloss, Clea Edwards, Nina Berman, Manfred Laubichler, Sander van der Leeuw and Jason Franz

If the 50th anniversary of Earth Day was shaping up to be a celebration, indeed an inspiring reflection, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a sharp jolt to that positive intention. Even though the current global crisis may curtail the celebratory mood, this Earth Day anniversary offers a valuable opportunity to reflect on its origins, what has been accomplished over the last 50 years, and what changes are needed to confront the risks we face to advance our planet’s well-being.

On January 28, 1969, six miles off the coast of tony Santa Barbara in Southern California, an oil slick was expanding at a rate of nearly 9,000 gallons an hour. Union Oil’s drilling in federal waters had blown a leak, eventually releasing some 3 million gallons of the thick, black crude over about 35 miles, washing onto the beaches and coating the feathers of loons and grebes. Locals rallied, reporters descended, politicians visited the site to see the disaster, the worst oil spill in the nation’s history at that time. Even Richard Nixon, the newly inaugurated U.S. president and a California native, came to witness the damage. “The Santa Barbara incident has frankly touched the conscience of the American people,” he said.

It wasn’t the only environmental debacle at that time. That year the public was confronted with the spontaneous combustion of the oil-slicked Cuyahoga River in Ohio and the poisoning of birds by the legalized use of the pesticide DDT. Environmentally minded Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, another visitor to the Santa Barbara beaches, saw a chance to harness the same energy young people employed to help change the country’s response to the Vietnam War around the problems of the environment.

Envisioned as a national youth event on April 22, wedged between spring break and finals, an estimated 20 million Americans took to the streets and participated in massive rallies across the country. That first Earth Day — comprising 10 percent of the entire U.S. population — included people from across the entire political spectrum, rich and poor, city dwellers and farmers, thousands of schools across the country, and so many members of Congress that the House and Senate adjourned that day. “The American people finally had a forum for expressing their concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air — and they did so with tremendous exuberance,” Nelson wrote in his 2002 book, Beyond Earth Day. In fact, in December of 1970, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the environment — and the early ’70s was a period when Congress passed various protections for clean air, clean water, endangered species, forestry, coastal conservation and land management.

“The American people finally had a forum for expressing their concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air — and they did so with tremendous exuberance.”
Sen. Gaylord Nelson

Fast forward to the present. What started as a diverse collection of Americans grew into a global consciousness-raising movement involving 192 countries and an estimated one billion people. Yet while Earth Day planted an environmental flag to identify and rally around broad shared values, it’s hard to argue the original fervor of the movement has translated into successfully addressing the planet’s challenges and creating a more sustainable future. In this half century, the world’s population doubled from 3.7 billion to over 7.6 billion while we lost a significant amount of biodiversity. We have continued to face environmental disasters, from the Deep Horizon oil spill, the gas explosion in Bhopal, India, and the Chernobyl nuclear accident, to accelerating climate events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the devastating Australian wildfires, to viral outbreaks like SARS, MERS, Ebola and now COVID-19. Throughout this period and particularly in the last several decades, developed nations combined with an economically accelerating developing world have pushed the limits of our planet to a point where our existing systems — environmental, biological, political, social, economic — are showing themselves to be increasingly unable to respond to or manage major shocks. And, worse, they have actively exacerbated the stresses for human survival and well-being.

At this moment, when 210 countries and territories face confirmed cases of the coronavirus and death, when the dark reality of a deadly global pandemic demands us to ask how did the human community allow itself to so badly manage the planet’s resources and be so ill-prepared to tackle the current outbreak, we have an opportunity for a reset. As citizens around the world witness cleaner air and water with humans quarantined inside and economies brought to a near standstill, we can see vividly, in real time, the impact of climate change and how our actions influence the interconnected systems upon which we depend. We are offered a chance to consider a new normal — in how we work, how we travel, how we power our production, how we feed ourselves, how we engage the natural world and so much more.

So while Earth Day, amid the isolating necessities of a global pandemic, may seem like no reason to celebrate, it can offer us fresh impetus to reflect on the next stage of this global coming together. Rather than see this moment motivated by rising nationalism and a dark impulse to search for scapegoats, Earth Day can remind us of our essential interdependence and the need to join forces. Rather than see the coming months defined by which country creates a COVID-19 vaccine first and which segments of the population will benefit the most, Earth Day invites us to ask: How do we create a global, inclusive movement that serves the most vulnerable among us as well as the most fortunate? And just as Earth Day 1970 was inspired by youth, Earth Day 2020 arrives after a year when we’ve seen a rising global youth movement demanding that we focus our attention on the deepening climate crisis.

As we look to the next year and a vaccine that can allow the human community to return to a new version of normal, this 50th anniversary can be a call to look beyond this near term to a new engagement with the planet we all share. Let’s imagine Earth Day 2070, the 100th anniversary, and the steps we can take now to make that a real cause for celebration.

Designing and shaping a future in which Earth will thrive.

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