Earth Day Turns 50 But Celebrations Muted by COVID-19 Pandemic

On Wednesday, Earth Day turns 50.

The first event, back in 1970, was focused on the United States, but in the intervening years Earth Day has gone global. It’s now celebrated in more than 190 countries.

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But with roughly one-third of the Earth’s population now under some form of coronavirus lockdown, Earth Day has gone virtual, with changes to multiple anniversary events planned across the globe.

“It’s going to be an enormous letdown after organizing for two years,” said Denis Hayes, who as a young activist was the principal national organizer of the very first Earth Day.

Hayes, who is now president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, which focuses on issues of sustainability in an urbanizing world, said the fact that so many young people are comfortable with digital technology and social media means that the environmental message still gets through.

“The good news, to the extent that one can find a little bit of good news in this, is that the folks that care most about the big issue that we have focused on this year, climate change, are basically young people. They are digital natives,” Hayes said. “Had we had a COVID-19 in 1970 when we had no computers, we had no internet, we had no cellphones or smartphones or social media, it would have been catastrophic.”

He said that this year, the most important date for the planet will come in November.

“The big thrust is that this year we are switching Earth Day from April 22 to Nov. 3,” Hayes said. “This is a terribly important election and we are hoping people will turn out in droves to vote for the Earth.”

While there is now a scientific consensus that the Earth is warming due the burning of fossil fuels, triggering climate change and increasingly extreme weather events, 50 years ago that consensus did not exist. But Hayes said he was drawn to environmental politics as a young man after recognizing that all was not well with America’s consumer-driven economic expansion.

“It was a period of enormously robust growth in the post-war period and America’s gross domestic product was increasing every year and there was a sense of self-satisfaction across the country,” Hayes said. “But it was pretty clear that there was a split between mounting gross domestic product and well-being. We had freeways cutting through dynamic inner-city areas. We had kids peeling lead-based paint off of walls and eating it. And over in Cleveland the Cuyahoga River kept catching fire — it caught fire I think 10 times over the years. The Great Lakes were dying … and so we decided it was time to start calling them (American manufacturers and industry) to account and change the rules by which American industry operated.”

Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and chair of the Illinois Commission on Environmental Justice, says that she was initially drawn to environmental action because of the activism of her parents — and also the birth of her first son. 

“My son developed his first asthma attack at three months,” Wasserman said. That prompted her desire to “understand what I could have done differently as a mom, but more importantly, what was in the air I breathe in my neighborhood? And sure enough, one of the two coal-burning power plants in Chicago was in Little Village.”

Wasserman said that in communities of color like hers, the fight for environmental justice doesn’t happen just one day a year. 

A stark reminder of that fact came April 11, when Hilco Global, the owner of the former Crawford Coal Plant, demolished a smokestack that triggered a plume of dust that enveloped Little Village, triggering widespread outrage.

“Earth Day for us is every day, but particularly on April 22, for this year it’s quite monumental given the implosion of the Crawford smokestack that happened almost a week and a half ago now,” Wasserman said. “Maybe it’s because we are people of color. Maybe it is because we are low-income. But the fact of the matter is that for us it is Earth Day every day of the year.”

She said that a $68,000 fine imposed on Hilco by the city was a slap on the wrist and that a number of city departments have a serious problem exacerbating environmental racism “particularly the Chicago Department of Public Health.” 

“We don’t even know what’s in the dust,” Wasserman said.

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