Earth Day is an annual event celebrated worldwide on April 22 to demonstrate environmental support. It was first celebrated in 1970 and now includes events coordinated by the Earth Day Network in more than 193 countries worldwide.
Two newlyweds from Ireland traveled to the east coast of Canada 50 years ago to start a new life – without knowing that US Senator Gaylord Nelson in Wisconsin next door was planning an uprising of grassroots and citizens across North America to raise awareness of the Sharpening USA must protect the environment.
Concerned about oil pollution and pollution, he wanted to mobilize people to gather information and put pressure on the government to take measures to protect the environment. And it worked – April 22, 1970 became Earth’s first day.
We are celebrating its 50th anniversary this week.
These newlyweds were my parents – now cocooned in Kilkenny due to Covid-19 – and lived in a world that had changed a lot from the world they lived in 1970. The child they had in 1972 was born at the beginning of the Anthropocene. The era in which man has become the greatest threat to the planet we call home.
I am the child of the Anthropocene. Since 1970, the world’s population has more than doubled, which means that twice as many people have to be accommodated, clothed and fed. More people and more consumption mean that every person now causes an average of 21 percent more CO2 emissions, which increases global temperatures by one degree.
The original Earth Day aimed to mobilize people as individuals and in communities and to create a day when people could act locally. She recognized the power of individual action when calling for policy changes. Nelson wondered if it would be possible “to use the environmental concerns of the public and to bring student anti-war energy into the environment. . . generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda ”.
It worked – Earth Day protests and student demonstrations led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and changes to the law on clean air and water.
In 2020 we have a thriving movement of young people demanding climate change and we are facing a new war in which the enemy is an invisible virus that causes us to come together with solidarity that we have not seen in a long time .
50 years later we have a new opportunity to strengthen the movement. In 1970, 20 million people in the United States attended Earth Day. I wonder how many will attend the online celebrations this year and may have difficulty getting attention when communities and political leaders are occupied by the Covid 19 crisis.
However, the relevance of individual action and activism has never been so obvious – the measures we take to stay at home, wash our hands and create social distance have a national impact and enable government policies to have an impact. Translating this approach into climate action is what we have to do next.
We still have 10 years to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent and increase the resilience of our societies to the effects of climate change. There’s no time to waste, and if we’re smart, we’re now planning a Covid-19 recovery that will boost investment in a green economy, assess climate risks, and plan for a carbon-free, sustainable Ireland by 2050.
The urgency that Nelson felt in 1970 is the same gravity that we need today – to fuel movements by individuals and communities who are demanding courageous action against climate change from their leaders. Now is not the time to rush to put the climate and biodiversity aside to help the economy recover – there is no economy if we irreparably damage the planet.
Rather, it is time to imagine the society we live in and want to rebuild better to create a better version of life before the pandemic based on the things we really appreciate, like wellbeing, security, justice and community. In this way, we, the children and adults of the Anthropocene, can be a force for the well-being of the planets.