The first Earth Day took place on Wednesday, April 22nd, 1970. Twenty million Americans participated, uniting politicians, activists and citizens for a national teach-in on the environment. This rare political alignment led very quickly to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Notably, all of these were achieved during the Republican presidency of Richard Nixon. Americans from across the spectrum backed these achievements. Half a century ago, our country promised itself a cleaner, safer, sustainable future. It promised future generations a restored Earth.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of that first Earth Day. It is certainly still a day to celebrate this wonderful Earth, it is also a good time to reflect on how much America has changed over that half century. Is the promise of a safe, healthy, sustained environment — and a more just society — intact, for our children and generations beyond them?
In today’s America, climate change deniers dictate environmental policy decisions. Corporate domination, money, and greenwashing have corrupted politics and social life, as pollution and global warming are on the rise. This situation is the antithesis of the future that the first Earth Day hoped for.
For the past six weeks, we’ve been riveted by the coronavirus pandemic. In North Carolina, some of us have close connections to virus-induced deaths and are actively grieving. Many are adjusting to loss of employment, loss of income, and kids out of school. Most of us have repeatedly felt deep panic. And, as is always the case, the heaviest burdens are falling on communities of color and those with the most unreliable financial circumstances. This unprecedented global emergency has exposed deep vulnerabilities and tragic flaws in our social institutions.
How we’ve responded to the virus is similar to our reactions to the climate emergency and other social crises. Our responses are too often characterized by poor preparations for the future, driven by concerns for immediate profits. Our policies increasingly ignore solid science and cut back the very agencies best equipped to deal with these crises. The pandemic and the climate emergency both highlight the need for systemic change.
What might that change look like? The Green New Deal captures the scope and urgency required. We need to accelerate the transition away from a carbon-fueled economy to an efficient, renewably-powered one, with millions employed in good, green jobs. We need to prioritize health, embracing the motto “Health is the Real Wealth.” On the broader social level, we need to actively enhance justice for everyone, and we need to restore compassionate safety nets.
Regrettably, we are already living in the climate emergency. But we can still “bend the curve” of climate chaos for the benefit of future generations. Here in North Carolina, positive changes would include: prohibiting the expansion of fracked gas usage for power generation; terminating the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Maxton LNG storage facility, and other planned fossil-fuel related projects; supporting wind power; requiring a quicker deployment of renewable generation sources; and divesting the public pension fund of fossil fuel holdings.
These changes are needed — now. Without them, the future will sink into an ongoing series of tragedies which will make our COVID-19 experience feel like a low-key dress rehearsal. With those changes, though, we can restore the promise.
We are at a crossroads. We can continue to blunder our way toward disaster. Or, instead, we can strive towards a world with a healthy environment — and a future which is new and brighter — for all of us and our children.
The first Earth Day cemented a promise that future generations would enjoy the Earth in all its glory. Let’s renew that promise in 2020!
-Kate Harrison and Lucia Paulsen, NC Youth Climate Action Team, on behalf of all living beings.