Fifty years ago this week, 20 million people celebrated the first Earth Day.
They came together on April 22, 1970, concerned about how industrialization was damaging our health and the health of the planet. Leaded gas was causing brain damage. Pesticides were killing birds. A massive oil spill had recently devastated the coast of Santa Barbara, California., killing thousands of sea birds, as well as dolphins, seals and sea lions.
The response included the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S., legislation protecting endangered species throughout the world, bans on some pesticides. We learned, and we acted.
In the 1990s the focus of Earth Day grew to include concerns about our climate.
And countries, albeit slowly, have been taking action at all levels. In Canada alone, more than 400 municipalities have declared a climate emergency, including Durham Region, Whitby, Ajax and Peterborough. They’re publicly committing to taking our climate and the natural world into consideration when they make their decisions.
Today we recognize the importance of the services nature provides. Pollinators (bees, butterflies, birds, bats, wasps and many others) are directly responsible for more than 30 per cent of our food, and indirectly contribute to most of it. Trees remove and store carbon while providing us with oxygen. Forests and wetlands filter water and provide flood protection. Urban parks and forests act as air conditioners, helping counter the heat island effects created by roads and buildings. And they can scrub pollutants from the air.
We’re also recognizing that we are consuming far more than the earth can replenish. Last year, by July 29, we had used up all the resources the natural world can replace in a year. Forty per cent more. We are in a state of overshoot, every year, depleting our forests, soils, fresh water, animals and fish. Canadians are super-consumers and worldwide, we have an economic system that is founded on non-stop economic growth. But the world is sending us a message: change the system.
This current virus has ground that system to a halt. It is devastating in so many ways. Putting strains on our health care system and our heroes keeping it going. Costing lives and livelihoods. But in some ways, it is showing us how our actions can make a difference – and not just to flatten a curve.
In China in February, emissions fell by 25 per cent. One study has estimated that far more Chinese lives will have been saved by cleaner air than lost to coronavirus.
In Venice, the lack of tour boats means people can again see fish in the water.
In India, less pollution means residents can now see the Himalayas – for the first time in decades.
Los Angeles, known for its brown smog, now has blue skies. It’s had the longest stretch of good quality air since 1995, according to EPA data.
Thousands of Canadians in communities across the country have started “caremongering” online sites to help each other. In communities everywhere, people are stepping up to make things better, cleaning up ditches, picking up groceries for elderly neighbours, making masks and shields to share with each other. Showing appreciation for our essential workers.
We’re reigniting our true values – compassion, fairness, help for each other.
We’re off the treadmill, and together with the planet, we are healing.
As we look to the future, maybe we can carry some of these lessons with us. Maybe we can adjust our consumption, our transportation, our business models so that we don’t go back to business as usual. We go forward to business in a cleaner, healthier world.
Maybe we can make every day Earth Day.