An Earth Day Unlike Any Other: 50 Years of History and One Coronavirus
Welcome to Earth Day 2020!
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day mobilization. We’ve come a long way since 1970—our country has seen the birth of the EPA, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. In 1972, the FIFRA set out to protect us from the hazards of pesticides, and in 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (to name a few).
They were hard-fought battles that transformed the way we live and conduct business, but our state and federal governments are not the only champions in this retrospective.
In the 1980s, we set aside our need for sky-high bangs and refused to use aerosol hairspray bottles that damaged the ozone layer. We fought against deforestation by switching to plastic bags instead of paper ones (more on that later). When Earth Day rolled around each year, our families or our schools planted a tree to invest in our planet’s future. While the Cold War dominated every newsreel and classroom preparation drill, we refused to ignore the dangers of radioactive waste.
By the 1990s, our global focus grew to incorporate the necessity to recycle as never before. Paper, plastics, biodegradable—they all had a special place in our homes and on the curbside. Further away from home, but just as essential, we studied about our rainforests and the impact human encroachment was having on these vital ecosystems. Ecotourism began to hit its stride, and the nightly news cycle was filled with reminders to cut-up our six-pack/soda rings before we threw them into a landfill where they could kill wildlife. We promptly obeyed.
The 2000s, not willing to be outdone by the previous decades, produced some of the most diligent examples of individuals pulling their collective resources and free will to protect our beautiful planet. As consumers, we’re saying “no” to plastic bags and water bottles; we’re saying “no” to chemicals and animal testing in our makeup, and we’re demanding accountability in our food supply chains. We’re fighting until our knuckles bleed to reduce our carbon footprint and slow global warming. We are the sustainable generation.
Don’t get me wrong—this isn’t a rose-colored revision of our environmental history. The last 50 years have contained some truly cringe-worthy and devastating environmental setbacks. Our hearts broke when the Exxon Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon oil spills polluted our oceans. Our most memorable discoveries over the last 50 years include a new island made of plastic that is wreaking havoc in the Pacific. The 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy pumped 27 tons of the deadly gas methyl isocyanate in the air and killed over 20,000 people in India. We’ve watched the polar ice caps decline, and global temperatures rise. We’ve seen the very protections we put in place to stem the tide of extinction be reversed, rolled back, and sacrificed in the name of greed and someone’s short-sided version of progress. No, I broke my rose-colored glasses a long time ago, but my hope hasn’t waned.
So here we are, Earth Day 2020—50 years of progress, 50 years of hope, and one Coronavirus.
Where do we go from here? While I never expected to spend Earth Day amid a pandemic, I think the answer to our question lies in the lessons we’ve learned since we’ve been in isolation.
Lesson #1: We Do Impact the Health of Our Planet.
Over the last few weeks, an array of social media posts and news articles have highlighted the environmental benefits of a world on hold. From lower emissions in China, clearer water in Venice, and clearer skies over Los Angeles, the earth is responding in amazing ways to the unexpected respite we’ve given it. While the lasting benefits of such changes remain unseen, it’s clear that we have the power to shift the tide of these critical issues. Our choices shape the outcome, and when we make a coordinated effort, we can see valuable changes in our planet—not in 50 years from now, but today.
Lesson #2: We Can Accomplish Great Things in a Short Period of Time.
Before the pandemic, most of us worked outside the home. We needed our cars to get back-and-forth to our offices, our meetings, and our working lunches. For most of us, it was improbable, if not impossible, to imagine giving up those cars for any extended periods. It wasn’t that we didn’t see the environmental dangers of fossil fuels and emissions, but most companies were unwilling or unequipped to accommodate the alternatives. Hello, COVID-19! Suddenly, we’re all working from home. In record time, the tasks that were once deemed impossible to do outside of an office building are being accomplished from our living rooms. The impossible has become possible. The lesson is that we don’t need mountains of red-tape and endless committees to make profound changes. Those changes don’t have to be limited to long-term corporate goals. Significant changes can happen fast, and just in the nick-of-time.
Lesson #3: Leadership Comes in All Sorts of Packages.
In times of crisis, we need strong leadership. During COVID-19, we’ve seen various examples around the globe of effective leadership and impotent pretenders. In those places where the call for help has gone unanswered, individual citizens have stepped forward to support their communities. They’ve made masks, served meals, moved their social and religious communities online to protect the public. They’ve never held a political office, and most of us will never know their names, but their example points to the power that we all possess. We don’t need to wait for a dangerous product or substance to be banned. We don’t have to wait for someone else to tell us what to do.
Each of us, as citizens and corporate leaders, can make the changes now. We can decide what our planet will look like in the next 10 or 50 years by the choices we make in our homes, businesses, and communities. As consumers and guardians of our planet, our ability to grasp the seriousness of global warming and the decisive actions we need to take, will highlight our personal leadership skills. Who do we want to emulate? How do we want to be remembered?
Yes, today is undoubtedly an Earth Day, unlike any other, but that doesn’t mean that Earth Day is a bust. We can still write letters to community leaders about our environmental concerns (include your kids for a school extra credit project). We can enjoy the natural wonders around us while practicing safe social-distancing. Our homebound Earth Day is an excellent time to do an in-depth audit of our home and regular daily routines. How are we using the resources we have available? What changes could we make now and when we return to our normal lives? What products, choices, or hobbies that harm the sustainability of our planet, has COVID-19 taught us that we could live without?
Whatever we do today and in the future, I will continue to have hope.