I live in a state where the lieutenant governor suggested grandparents should be willing to expose themselves to, and if necessary, die from coronavirus, so their grandchildren will not suffer economic hardship. Like me, you may have heard friends echo the lieutenant governor’s sentiment or considered it yourself. His statement is almost a month old, and yet, I think the statement is still relevant, as we approach the 50th celebration of Earth Day on April 22nd.
The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970. At that point in time, the U.S. had been in a post-World War II economic expansion for over two decades, fed by a demand for consumer goods. Advances in plastics technology for the war effort had made many products less expensive, and the Cold War, including the space race, created a competition for new inventions and technologies. These were commercialized into spinoff consumer products. All of this came at a cost beyond what people paid at the store. In the 1960’s, they began to notice the environment was subsidizing their material goods and jeopardizing their well-being.
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring alerted people to the environmental effects of chemicals that were being widely used. The impact of pesticides on birds captured people’s attention, when only 487 nesting pairs of the iconic U.S. bird, the Bald Eagle, could be found in the lower 48 states. After several smaller smog events, the 1966 New York city smog event killed hundreds of people. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio for the 13th time, due to a build-up of industrial waste and debris in the river.
In response to these and other environmental problems, approximately 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day. As Walter Cronkite reported, it was “a nationwide outpouring of mankind[sic] seeking its own survival…….enlisting all the citizens of a bountiful country in a common cause of saving life from the deadly byproducts of that bounty.” In 1970, people demanded life. They saw the death in their own backyard, and the defilement of the places where they recreated. They proclaimed life as more important than limitless economic expansion and demanded a response from leadership. The U.S. government responded with a series of actions, including the following laws.
1972: Clean Water Act
1973: Endangered Species Act
1974: Safe Drinking Water Act
Now, 50 years later, the environment in the U.S. is substantially better. The water and air are cleaner. The Bald Eagle and other U.S. bird species affected by pesticides are recovering. As an example of how far we’ve come, life has returned to the Cuyahoga River, which is now part of Cuyahoga Valley National Park and an asset for planning Cleveland’s future. It’s even safe to eat a limited number of fish from the Cuyahoga River.
But all is not well. Over 80% of the U.S. population lives in an urban area, and the air is unhealthy to breath in many U.S. cities. Thousands of water bodies across the nation still are listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act, which is tied to millions of people not having access to safe drinking water. Globally, the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with nearly one in eight species at risk. The main cause of species extinction is habitat loss, as people are using the earth’s resources at an increasing rate per capita. The U.S. is near the top of the list of countries that use more resources per person each year than natural systems can replenish. Encompassing it all are the impacts of climate change, which are only beginning to be felt. We do not yet know how bad it will be.
Then there’s the coronavirus pandemic. It shows us that borders mean nothing to natural systems. Air and water pollution and the climatic impacts of deforestation and carbon emissions are not confined to the country where they originate. In this time of “globalization on steroids,” our well-being is integrally linked to the well-being of all life on this planet.
Earth Day 2020 comes at a critical juncture, when the pandemic has nearly halted the global economy. It gives us the opportunity to reflect on the world we want for our grandchildren. Earth Day occurs within the Christian season of Easter, when the church focuses on resurrection and new life. As our government leaders are talking about when and how to restart the economy, I have a desire for a resurrection, not a restart. I don’t want to go back to the path of unsustainable consumption and increasing inequity, where the bounty for some is subsidized by the lives of people laboring in marginal conditions, the well-being of future generations, and a loss of life throughout creation.
When our grandchildren, fifty years from now, look back at today, what will they see? Will millions of us demand more of our leadership, just as millions did fifty years ago? What are we truly willing to sacrifice for our grandchildren? In the Christian tradition, new life only comes through sacrifice, a willingness to let go of the material things of this world. The systemic changes needed to heal the planet don’t require us to expose ourselves to a virus and literally die for our grandchildren, as the lieutenant governor suggested, but they do require us to die to our desire for consumer goods beyond what we need.
Here are a few of links to organizations that are hosting online, virtual, and other Earth Day activities appropriate for shelter-in-place conditions. I encourage you to engage and take part in some of the activities. If possible, do so with youth and young adults. You may find, as I do, hope in them, as well as the inspiration to make the real sacrifices that are necessary for our grandchildren to have life 50 years from now.
Earth Day Network (Interfaith and Secular)
Creation Justice Earth Day Sunday 2020 Toolkit (Ecumenical)
50th Earth Day Livecast with Global Religious and Indigenous Leaders (Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology)
Love Creation: Plant a Tree for Earth Day (United Church of Christ)
Sound the Call! (Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability)
Ramadan Creation Care Calendar (Green Muslims)