Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, an event that first took place some eight-and-a-half years before I was born. Sitting here on the forty-second day sheltering-in-place in Chicago from COVID-19 and watching the Earth Day messages from conservation and environmental organizations large and small fill my email inbox and my social media streams, each fighting with the other for my click and my credit card number, I think, “To hell with Earth Day.” Earth Day was an effective tool of and for its time. But it is not for our time.
Let this 50th Earth Day be the last. We need something new.
The brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson, Democrat of Wisconsin, and inspired by what was then the largest oil spill in U.S. history (in southern California’s Santa Barbara Channel in 1969), Earth Day was the public culmination of a decade of activism to clean up the environment, an impulse that at the time was mainstream, bipartisan, and patriotic. Hoping to secure the youth vote, Richard and Pat Nixon planted a tree on the White House lawn on that first Earth Day, and he would actually go on to sign some of the most visionary pieces of legislation ever to protect the planet, among them the founding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
The five-decade legacy of Earth Day is…mixed. Yes, air has gotten cleaner, water has gotten cleaner, and species that would have been lost to us have been saved. All this has happened in spite of near-perpetual chipping away at the laws and regulations set up in Earth Day’s wake. But since that late April day in 1970, we have seen two oil spills that dwarfed the one that led to the holiday (the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 and the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico ten years ago last Monday).
And of course, not long after that first Earth Day came the earliest scientific studies ringing the alarm about human-caused global warming. Not only have we done next-to-nothing to combat climate change, in the past 30 years we have exponentially increased the rate by which we are dumping carbon and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
Something else happened roughly 50 years ago that shapes the movement for a clean and healthy planet: the Tax Reform Act of 1969. Dry though it may sound, it was the Citizens United of social, environmental, and artistic movements. The act created the rules that gave us the non-profit sector we know today. In its wake, the number of foundations and tax-exempt non-profits exploded, and today tax-exempt charitable organizations make up over 10% of private employment in the U.S. As these organizations have professionalized and specialized, across sectors they have become more cautious in approach and more dependent on the beneficence of foundations and individual donors with the means to support them, even as wealth and income inequality have accelerated over the same period. Non-profits keep in their lanes, chase funding, and dismiss engaging with the concerns of other sectors as “mission creep.”
In other words, movements became organizations that fight first for the attention of wealthy donors and then, almost always with an eye to fundraising, chase that white whale of non-profits: the general public. It’s a far cry from the widespread anger at the state of the environment that was harnessed into the first Earth Day in order to effect real political change.
Which brings me back to today. Earth Day itself became a non-profit, Earth Day Network. Air got cleaner. Inequality got worse. And then the pandemic came. And not least because of climate change, other pandemics will follow.
Over the weeks of COVID-19, I’ve watched with increasing frustration and sadness as, with a few notable exceptions, conservation organizations have all but ignored engaging substantively with our new reality. In a crescendo climaxing today I’ve seen organizations stubbornly press on with their Earth Day fundraising appeals as if they are Florida mayors insisting on opening beaches. Not only was a pandemic not going to stop these organizations from focusing on Earth Day, but the economic disaster was going to cause them to redouble their efforts to get as many Earth Day inspired donations as possible before all the money left the sector and flowed into rapid response funds to address COVID-19.
That’s what happens when a movement gets replaced by a holiday, and not even an official one at that. The conservation sector is compelled to crowd its messages into a single day (or week at most) and ends up merely jostling each other for the attention of a public distracted by once-in-a-century events.
The few conservation organizations that have engaged in real ways with our moment only serve to show what could be possible, but simply isn’t happening broadly. Here are a few simple, deeply human examples of conservation responding to the moment:
- Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods, while acknowledging the spirit of Earth Day, has marshaled its resources into an ongoing mask sewing drive for under-equipped medical centers and non-profits across the Chicago region.
- The Vermont Land Trust has reemphasized its focus on the community it serves and has pointed its supporters and members toward relief funds and benefits for small farmers.
- The American Hiking Society has issued up-to-date recommendations about how and where to safely get outside while under shelter-in-place restrictions.
The post-COVID-19 world is being created now. If we want public land, clean air, clean water, and healthy ecosystems to be part of that world, we need to start making the case and inspiring people now not because it’s Earth Day, but because we’re in a pandemic. In 1969, as oil gushed into the Pacific Ocean off the southern California coast, Earth Day was born as a tool to harness anger. Today, as we sit in our houses or put on our masks to go to work in hospitals and grocery stores or to drive city buses, we see a nation that is remarkably united. Despite the reality show disarray of our leaders, we Americans have calmly and quietly risen to the occasion, sheltering in place, sewing masks, reaching out to friends and neighbors to check on them.
It is heartening. We are not the doomed, dissolute, and distracted people we are cynically portrayed as being. We have also renewed our appreciation for being outside and the value of seeking calm, peace, exercise, and health in nature.
This is the movement of our time happening during—but certainly not because of—Earth Day. We need a movement for our time. We need leaders for our time.
And we need to find the Earth Day for our time.