50 Years of Earth Day: How to Continue Our Fight in the Age of Coronavirus

By Miro Korenha and Monica Medina

This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the first Earth Day when 20 million Americans took to the streets and demanded action to clean up the environment.  It was a unifying moment – people from all walks of life and in every region participated. It was an impressive expression of political will and led to real improvement in our bedrock environmental laws and government institutions.


Fast forward to Earth Day 2017, when after President Trump took office and began his unconscionable run of regulatory rollbacks and pro-fossil fuel policies, there was another massive outpouring of people in the streets to “March for Science.” The Earth Day Network, which sponsored the original event, launched a three-year campaign to culminate on the 50th anniversary, sensing a need to recreate history.  We were so close.  And then, COVID-19 happened.  The global catastrophe spawned by our reckless consumption of the Earth’s bounty took the world by storm.  Here we are, with the 50th Anniversary upon us, and we are unable to have our day of reckoning – when our generation gets to demand real change.


We needed this moment to rally the troops, old and young, experience a sense of solidarity that would bind us, and prepare us for the battles we must win in order to bring about the next wave of environmental progress.  The mobilization metaphors are apt – we are at war with the virus today, but will be at war with the rising temperatures on our planet for the foreseeable future.


And as if it was all part of his dastardly plan, President Trump’s utter failure to manage this global crisis has forced us off the front lines and into our homes, struggling to regroup and scrambling to connect.  Unfortunately, it also exposed the fissures and fault lines in our movement and even the challenges of its successes.  In 1970 a band of young leaders spearheaded the movement, but the organizations they founded are now major institutions in their own right.  The next wave of organizations, like the Sunrise Movement and Fridays for the Future, is coming of age trying to find their place in the conservation chorus.  And more Americans than ever are waking up to realize that they are needed in this fight too.


We are clearly at another pivotal moment in the evolution of the environmental movement.  We cannot let the challenge that COVID presents break our will or slow us down.  We have to push through the disruption, the disappointment, the disconnection and the Trump distractions with a single-minded focus on change.  Change — even if it means moving beyond the old ways that our movement did things, and change — even if it means passing the torch of leadership to the next generation.  To affect change, we must be prepared to face the fact that WE may need to change too.  Like an old house, we have “good bones” but we need some new wood.


Let’s harness the current awakening that our nation is having to the fragility of nature and also our dependence on it. Americans are flocking to parks and public spaces in droves to escape social isolation and relying on the outdoors for mental health and exercise. They’re also reading headlines about how our lack of respect for nature has allowed COVID-19 to snowball into a historic pandemic.


Perhaps for the first time since the dire environmental reality that led to the first Earth Day, we now have an innate awareness of what we’re fighting for. We cannot take environmental protection for granted and each generation must fight for the laws that enshrine it. That fight might look different in the digital (and coronavirus) age, but public sentiment helped push for the creation of the EPA, and we can still harness it today.


We also have a new enemy to defeat that didn’t exist in 1970: the climate crisis. Climate change is already affecting almost every American and is one of the most critical issues for voters in our upcoming election.  We must keep demanding that climate issues are talked about, covered by the media, and most importantly we have to make concern for the planet synonymous with being a consistent voter. Staying home on election day is just as bad as denying climate change.


But though we’re stuck at home, we’re not powerless. We still have the power to connect with people and to keep speaking our truth. After all, talking about climate change and the environment is one of the most impactful things we can do to drive change.  So be that squeaky wheel, demand more from your leaders, your community, and your family. We have a roadmap to making this movement successful, there may be more twists and turns in the road but the destination has not changed. The key is relentless, consistent action, and we’ve all still got that in us. Coronavirus has nothing on us.


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