Written by Elisabeth Gick

20 million US citizens participated in the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970. 

20 million equaled 10 percent of the US population at the time. For comparison, only 1 to 1.6 % of the population participated in the big 2017 women’s marches in the U.S., according to Wikipedia. 

Conceived by Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) and co-sponsored by Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-CA) it was organized by 25-year old Harvard grad student Denis Hayes. This “national teach-in on the environment” channeled anti-Vietnam war energy into environmental consciousness. Not a moment too soon.

Air pollution from smokestacks and leaded gas was making people sick; some rivers were so polluted they could be set on fire; throwing trash out of car windows was okay. And pesticides were applied generously, without concern for the health of the workers, consumers, or the soil. Although Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, had become a national bestseller introducing the complexity and fragility of the ecological web to a broad public, her warnings had so far failed to prompt environmental action.

By 1970, however, people were ready to act. The percentage of citizens who cited cleaning up air and water as one of their top three political priorities rose from 17% in 1965 to 53% in 1970.  Citizens of all political convictions and all ages understood the dire need for protection of natural resources and the planet as a whole. They poured into the streets and onto college campuses en masse to demand swift, decisive change. And they were heard. That same year President Richard Nixon established the EPA and strongly improved the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The Endangered Species Act followed in 1973.

Over the next 30 years Earth Day grew into a worldwide event. Some years saw more meaningful and consequential activity than others that looked more like neighborhood spring cleaning parties. The year 2000 stood out, with its focus on global warming and renewable energy. 184 nations observed Earth Day that year. 

Today, with the need for decisive action greater than ever, when even moderate politicians recognize climate change as an existential threat and young people fear for their future we have to bring back the original revolutionary spirit and fervor of the first Earth Day, whatever form that can take in these months of COVID-19. We have no time to lose. We have to make the choice between saving a habitable planet for our children or continuing to recklessly destroy our home.

The official Earth Day website is aiming high, proclaiming that “Earth Day 2020 will be far more than a day. It must be a historic moment when citizens of the world rise up in a united call for the creativity, innovation, ambition, and bravery that we need to meet the climate crisis and seize the enormous opportunities of a zero-carbon future. CLIMATE ACTION is the theme, 1 billion participants are expected worldwide.

With all due and true respect to the people who are struggling to make it through the health crisis at hand, we cannot put the climate emergency out of sight. The parallels between the two crises are striking:

1. Nobody is safe from coronavirus infection and/or the heating climate. No matter your age, your status in this world, or where you are on the globe, the crisis can find you.

2. Our government chooses to put the economy over health, safety and well being of the people. Even here in Colorado there is still fracking going on during a respiratory pandemic!

3. We have lost/are losing crucial time for action by sidelining the experts. At least since the Ebola crisis, possibly even longer, have scientists warned of a pandemic. Their warnings were sidelined. Warnings about a climate crisis go back to the late sixties. How many floods, fires, hurricanes and droughts do we need before our government acts decisively?

4. Delayed action makes the crisis worse, more expensive, more pervasive, and more painful,

5. especially for those who are disadvantaged already. I think this point is glaringly and disturbingly obvious in these weeks and months.

The double whammy of coronavirus plus climate crisis holds enormous potential for change for the better, but requires our compassionate action NOW.

Please check out how you can get involved in Liz Fuhr’s article about Earth Week Activities here! 

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