This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. What Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson had initially envisioned as a national day of environmental education blossomed into a full-blown movement when on April 22, 1970, 10 percent of the United States population, 20 million people, took to America’s streets to protest polluted rivers, smoggy cities, and oil spills in the ocean.
“Earth Day, for some, marks the beginning of the modern environmental movement,” said U.S. Forest Service’s Steve Dunsky. In the ensuing years, environmental activism was followed up with legislative action when President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air, Clean Water, and National Environmental Policy acts. During the same period, the Endangered Species Act was strengthened and the EPA outlawed DDT as a pesticide.
These laws and policies brought about concrete change, but it was a singular event in 1972 that sparked the public’s collective imagination. Apollo 17 was on its way to the moon when the crew snapped a photo of Earth as it was being seen from space for the first time. The “Blue Marble” went viral, and it became the Earth Day logo. “The Earth as the ‘Blue Marble’ sitting out there in the black vastness of space really caught people’s attention and made them realize we are living in a finite system,” said Dunsky, an organizer of Visions of the Wild, a film and arts festival in Vallejo that will celebrate Earth Day in September.
After the inaugural event in 1970, Earth Day became an annual American secular holiday with trash cleanups, hikes, and festivals. In 1990 it went global, and today, one billion people worldwide use it as a day to celebrate Earth and take action to protect it. This year thousands of organizations had planned events for the 50th anniversary, but given the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it is unlikely that people will gather in person. And yet, the challenges for the next 50 years remain.
To mark this auspicious occasion, the Bay Area Monitor asked several noted environmentalists working in different fields — Dunsky, editor and urban farmer Jason Mark, author Mary Ellen Hannibal, and Ph.D. candidate C.N.E. Corbin — about the history and importance of Earth Day, and the role it might play in the next 50 years.
“Earth Day is a timeout to consider our fundamental reliance on earth and its natural systems, and then to consider what we can do individually, or ideally collectively, to safeguard those systems,” said Jason Mark, editor of Sierra magazine.
There is good news and bad on the eve of this anniversary, according to Mark, who said, “In some ways we do have a cleaner, healthier environment than we had 50 years ago. But the world as a whole is facing two huge threats that are going to consume U.S. and global politics in the next 50 years. One is the climate crisis. The other danger — that unfortunately is often overlooked — is the biodiversity crisis, not only in individual species, but in the [reduced] abundance of species.”
The climate and biodiversity crises are global, and local, problems. “We are reaching a lot of planetary boundaries,” said Dunsky. “In 30 or 50 years from now the whole world could look very different in terms of climatic zones, coastlines, and productivity of soil and the oceans — the ability to sustain life, frankly. We’re seeing the effects of climate change in the Bay Area right now, and God only knows what it will look like 50 years from now.”
Mark said part of the solution is to be found in the earth itself. “One of the really exciting frontiers of the next 10 to 20 years is going to be biologists digging into, and understanding better, how healthy forests and healthy grasslands can work to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It will be the work of a generation,” he added, and will create jobs and boost the economy. “It’s really exciting to think how climate restoration could actually give an entire generation a new sense of meaning and purpose.”
Young activists are already in the trenches, but there are differences between activists today and those in the ’70s. One popular, utopian idea was inspired by Ecotopia, a 1975 book by Berkeley author Ernest Callenbach. The book envisions a community that breaks off from the U.S. and forms its own eco-friendly society. It became a cult classic, and a blueprint for the future, but an evolving world has made the vision of Ecotopia untenable. “We can’t live in a bubble,” said Dunsky. “What happens in China affects us here. The carbon emitted in India, or the fracking in Oklahoma, affects us here in California.”
There are also limits to another popular idea in the ’60s, the back-to-the-land movement. “Some part of the solution of 21st century sustainability is actually urbanization, not going back to the land,” said Mark. “A resident of New York City has a smaller environmental footprint than a resident of say, suburban Phoenix. Environmentalism has become friendlier toward, and more open toward, the importance of the role of cities.”
Mark interviewed teenagers in the streets while covering the climate strikes last September. Climate activist Greta Thunberg inspired the 2019 strikes that took place in 150 countries and demanded action. “There is a new level of emotional intensity now that climate change has gone from a distant threat to a clear and present danger,” said Mark. “They’re pissed off — there’s no other way to characterize it. Young people feel like their very future, if not their current present, is on the line.”
Mark notes that young people are invested in the movement, but he is also slightly worried that the movement is increasingly characterized by “species narcissism,” or saving “us.” Older Sierra Club members have a sense of what Mark calls “deep ecology,” while younger environmentalists often have a viewpoint that is narrower.
That’s where citizen science comes in. “It sustains the ideal that we’re not just engaged in civic advocacy to save our own bacon from a crisis that we manufactured. We want to ensure that we are protecting wild landscapes and all of the other forms of life with whom we share this planet,” said Mark.
Earth Day Network, a driving force behind Earth Day and the environmental movement, is in April rolling out Earth Challenge 2020, a global citizen science initiative. Author Mary Ellen Hannibal, who wrote a book about citizen scientists, uncovered an important link while working on her first books about evolution and wildlife conservation. She had noticed in her research and fieldwork that when critical habitats had been saved for an endangered species, there was usually a diverse group of people advocating for protection and an element of citizen science involved. Citizen science bridges political differences and the “baked-in defense mechanisms that people have about how they live their lives,” she said.
Citizen science (which you don’t have to be a citizen to perform) is important in several ways, said Hannibal. It provides large amounts of data for scientists and land managers, and helps people form relationships with the natural world. “As people participate in documenting nature, they begin to organically understand the problems confronting it,” she said.
Volunteer scientists collect data and send it to apps like eBird, Journey North, and iNaturalist, which then aggregate it. The data allows scientists to see movement patterns and population changes, which will be vital for land managers during the climate crisis.
“Citizen science data has been turbocharged by the smartphone,” said Hannibal, who explained that there’s an artificial intelligence (AI) component that helps to identify what you’re seeing. “It’s like a master class in nature, but remember, the more people observe and feed their observations into the machine learning, the more accurate the machine learning. It’s really a collaboration between individuals, gigantic computing power, and the ability to see.”
One Bay Area example is our knowledge of the huge decline in Western monarch butterflies, which Hannibal cites as an example of the insect apocalypse. “We know about [the monarchs] because of citizen science, because for a long time, people have been monitoring their populations.”
In the next 50 years, we will stand on the shoulders of those who came before us — much the way environmental activists in 1970 benefitted from earlier social change movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Free Speech Movement, and the Vietnam War protests.
Moving forward, we need to ensure that everybody has a place at the table, said C.N.E. Corbin, a Ph.D. candidate in UC Berkeley’s department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and the chair of Oakland’s Parks and Recreation advisory commission.
“There’s definitely a very white understanding of environmentalism and what Earth Day means,” she said. “My mom used to take us kids on walks in the D.C. area, but we never called them hikes. And there are a lot of folks of color out there who know their way around a garden, but they may not acknowledge it as being an avid environmentalist,” said Corbin.
She also noted that the first Earth Day occurred in the lingering shadow of segregation in the National Parks. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was planning a vacation at Canada’s Fundy National Park while on a speaking tour in 1960, the innkeeper denied his reservation because he thought a black couple’s presence would upset U.S. tourists. And even though last century’s Negro Traveler’s Green Book listed the Ahwahnee Hotel and four other lodgings in Yosemite National Park as being safe for black recreationists, today’s Yosemite visitations by African Americans hovers around just one percent. “I think this is a time when we sit around a table and really discuss what is possible and who it is possible for,” said Corbin.
“I hope that this important anniversary offers a way to sort of reboot, as it were, this secular holiday,” said Mark. “Somewhere along the line, some of the spirit has gotten lost. I’m hoping that, especially with the confluence of Earth Day and the climate strikes, the 50th anniversary gives a new sense of urgency and political relevance.”
“With CO2 ratcheting up, we’re finally starting to do something about it,” said Hannibal. “But is it going to be enough and in time? It’s like that with biodiversity; is it going to be enough and in time? People are not focusing on biodiversity in the same way as CO2, but I think we ought to. It’s closer at hand, and we can get out there with our smartphones, or volunteer to restore functioning ecosystems, and really make a difference right now.”
Corbin, who incorporates science fiction in her vision for the future and her advocacy work, considers herself an environmental JEDI, which means she works for environmental justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Quoting Yoda in Star Wars, she said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Aleta George covers open space for the Monitor.