On April 22, 2020, we observe the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the birthday of the modern environmental movement. In the half-century since the inception of Earth Day, billions of people have taken part in activities around the world, a clamoring for action that drove the formation of groundbreaking government regulations, including the National Environmental Education Act and the Clean Air Act.
But we all know that work is far from done.
This year's Earth Day is the most important yet. The coronavirus global health pandemic is not the only emergency we face. The global climate crisis — the slow-burn of our only home — was already well underway before coronavirus took the stage.
As Naomi Klein writes in her fantastic book, "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate":
“Climate change has never received the crisis treatment from our leaders, despite the fact that it carries the risk of destroying lives on a vastly greater scale than collapsed banks or collapsed buildings.”
The Origins of a Movement
The decades following the Second World War were dominated by science, industry and prosperity. The developed world threw itself whole-heartedly into the profound consumption of the earth's resources. Air pollution became the new normal, and it smelled like progress. But the turbulent 1960s made fertile ground for new ideas: Rachel Carson's seminal book "Silent Spring" was released in 1962, inspiring the grassroots environmental movement. Carson's book focused on the dangers of synthetic pesticides, warning of the cumulative and off-target impacts across species and ecosystems. The use of synthetic pesticides is a subject very dear to our hearts at the Non-GMO Project, as the majority of GMOs are engineered for pesticide-tolerance. This technology has led to a dramatic increase in the frequency and toxicity of chemicals used in agriculture.
Carson's book was both influential and provocative, gaining the attention of the public and the ire of chemical companies whose profits depended on the sales of dangerous pesticides. One prominent spokesman for the chemical industry during the 1960s warned the public, "If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth." (Curiously, we encounter similar comments today in the Non-GMO Project's social media pages. It's nice to see the classics are still popular). "Silent Spring" raised public awareness of the dangers of excessive chemical use and the risks, not only to human health but to the environment upon which our survival depends. The movement ultimately coalesced as the first-ever Earth Day, on April 22, 1970.
Silent Earth Day
Since its inception, Earth Day has grown globally to include over a billion participants each year. It is the greatest secular event on the planet, for the planet. But this year is of particular importance: We are a species at a crossroads.
In the last decade, we've seen the hottest temperatures on record. The effects of a changing climate are tangible: Through droughts, floods and wildfires, a growing number of citizens have personal experience with the dangers of climate change. Inspiring young climate leaders have taken up the cause, working to build a future for themselves. In the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic pushed a wave of social, economic and political disruption into hyperdrive. The cost, the sheer human suffering of it, has been all too high. But we now know how great our capacity to change truly is; how quickly our actions can be altered to support a greater good. As we emerge from this pandemic, we have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild our world. What world do we want to create?
This year's Earth Day events won't clog the streets of the world's largest cities. We won't make placards, paint our children's faces and head out for a day of action. With a pandemic pushing us indoors, we must find new ways to connect and commit to much more than a single day. Earth Day starts on April 22, and it's up to all of us to keep it going.
Start with 24 hours of action! For more information about participating in the Earth Day movement, visit earthday.org.