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Celebrate Earth Day's 50th Birthday on April 22

climate change protestors

The year was 1970. Leisure suits ruled the runway and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” topped the charts. Protests against US involvement in the Vietnam war had reached a fever pitch. The Apollo 13 moon mission made an unnerving return to earth after its captain calmly uttered his famous phrase, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Gaylord Nelson, a World War II vet and U.S. senator from Wisconsin, was also pondering a serious problem. He was troubled by the sight of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, so saturated with chemicals that it caught fire, and the effects of a major oil spill off the coast of California. More than three million gallons of oil had flowed into the Santa Barbara Channel, killing more than 10,000 seabirds, dolphins, seals and sea lions. It was the first major environmental disaster broadcast into America’s living rooms on network television.

While both events had provoked plenty of outrage among nature-loving Americans, Nelson knew it would take an organized effort to put sustainable pressure on his fellow lawmakers. Meaningful change was not going to come quietly or easily. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, and powered by the social awareness spawned in the late 1960s, he sought to harness this new energy and passion of young Americans.

Nelson, a Democrat, recruited a Republican congressman Pete McCloskey to co-chair his effort. They put a Harvard student in charge of organizing dozens of events nationwide, and the result was the very first Earth Day. It was scheduled for late April—in part because it fell between spring break and final exams for the nation’s college students.

After months of planning, on April 22, 1970, more than 20 million Americans (roughly 10 percent of the population at that time) filled their local streets, parks and buildings to advocate for a healthy, sustainable environment. Some were from grassroots organizations established years before, and others were moved to act by evidence of dying natural resources. All were fueled by youthful passion and fury at the bleak future they saw ahead.

"Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level,” Nelson said years later. “We had neither the time nor the resources to organize the 20 million demonstrators who participated from thousands of schools and local communities. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself."

By the end of that year, Earth Day activism led to the development of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

50 Years Later

Here in 2020, the world is suddenly focused on a different problem—but there is a clear connection between the COVID-19 pandemic and the condition of our environment. Across the globe, as humans have withdrawn from their daily routines, the effect on the air around cities is remarkable. Satellite imagery of Wuhan, China, during its social distancing period shows almost a complete dissipation of air pollution. In India, the difference is visible to the naked eye.

Still, a total absence of human activity is not a sustainable plan for environmental change. Social distancing may have given us an extraordinary look at the world envisioned by the first Earth Day activists, but the need to focus on ecological issues remains.

Like most celebrations right now, Earth Day’s 50th anniversary is complicated by the pandemic. As long as social distancing guidelines have most of the world on pause, the streets cannot be filled with demonstrations.

However, there is a wide selection of digital events to mark the occasion and underscore this year’s theme: climate action. The Earth Day website has an interactive map dotted with digital events around the globe, searchable by language, age group and event type.  They also have activities to do at home.

If you’d like to keep your Earth Day celebration local, there are plenty of digital happenings here in Virginia:

The Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center in Charlottesville will be premiering a short film and hosting a live nature walk, all on Facebook.

Love Mother Earth in Charlottesville has moved their planned Earth Day celebration to October 25, but on April 22 they’ll offer some free family fun on their website, to tide you over until then.

Staunton’s Shenandoah Green has arranged lots of fun stuff for the days leading up to Earth Day. Participants are encouraged to enjoy these creative activities and share their results.

On April 24, Richmond’s Virginia Interfaith Center is hosting a webinar called “ Caring for the Planet During Ramadan,” presented by a Muslim environmental activist.

NASA has a whole website dedicated to Earth Day, and will be hosting a special episode of NASA Science Live on Earth Day at 3 p.m. They’re also sharing some breathtaking images of Earth captured by NASA Worldview, and a tutorial so you can capture and share your own images of weather patterns, icebergs, wildfires and more.

The Future of Earth Day

Although many of the same environmental challenges persist, the world is very different in 2020. Digital communication has given activism an unprecedented reach and speed, and environmental action has become a priority between governments, not just within them.

But while Earth Day 1970 was a bipartisan effort, somewhere along the way, environmental concerns became a political sore spot. For many, climate change is regarded as something you can believe in or not, rather than an amply supported scientific reality.

Last year, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg directed the world back to this discussion with a blunt and blistering address at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. Scolding a room full of world leaders for their inaction, she said, “We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

Thunberg’s strong words, and the widespread attention they garnered, suggest that the future of climate action still rests exactly where Gaylord Nelson suspected: with energetic young people who are fed up.

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