On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m awake at 4:00 a.m. after another restless night during the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to think of a reason to say, “Happy Earth Day.”
In 1970, the first Earth Day wasn’t a celebration, but a protest. Sparked by an oil spill, backed by a U.S. Senator, and organized from the ground up, events included thousands of teach-ins, rallies, and marches for environmental justice. (There is an excellent article on the backstory of Earth Day here.)
Over the next 50 years, Earth Day was greenwashed into a “celebration” complete with music festivals. Community groups gather to clean up trash in the park, but the movement lacks the bite it did in 1970, when the trash was dumped on the steps of town hall to protest abysmal waste management policies.
Now, on the 50th anniversary, we are spending Earth Day isolating in our homes or braving the grocery store in masks and gloves (and creating new environmental problems with poor disposal practices). Meanwhile the environmental protections that were fought for in 1970 are being “rolled back” in the name of economic growth, but which sounds to me less like beneficial growth and more like corporate profit at any expense for the rest of us.
I have been taking a narrow approach to my advocacy. Recognizing my time and energy are limited resources, I focus my attention locally and at the state level, where my individual voice has more impact, and trust that bigger organizations have my back nationally and globally with the help of whatever dollars I can send their way. As a wildlife rehabilitator, I not only try to save individual turtles from their injuries, but I will remind you, ad nauseum, to watch out for them on roads and properly dispose of fishing tackle, and I do what I can to support projects that ensure healthy habitats and safer road crossings.
Not only do I have a soft spot for my local hard backed friends, but I know that many species of turtles face extinction due to overexploitation, habitat loss, and climate change. To me, the struggles of turtles provides sad commentary on the state of the world’s wildlife in general and the failure of the human animal to recognize our interdependence on and interconnection to species that don’t look like us, as well as to many that do. Through turtles I relate to the environmental crisis as a whole.
I believe it’s time for the Earth Day movement to get some teeth again. The coronavirus has dumped the trash of consumerism, social injustice, and wildlife exploitation on all of our steps. Youth-led movements are back, and they are ready to teach us how we can create a clean and more sustainable future, if we are willing to listen. When we collectively demand systemic change, and we get it, then maybe we can say, “Happy Earth Day.”
Virtual in 2020
Since I can’t be in Albany today, I’m joining New York’s virtual advocacy day. There are many virtual teach-ins happening today as well. Here are a few you can join: