April 22 was supposed to be a day of global celebration and protest. Fifty years ago, up to ten percent of Americans participated in thousands of local events on the first Earth Day. That mass action, which would have been widely commemorated this year, propelled early environmental policy victories that, in the U.S., included the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), as well as the passage of the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973).
But nature threw a curveball—a virus that has us all huddling indoors and physically distancing ourselves when we occasionally venture out for food or exercise. Instead of massing in parks and at city halls on a spring day, North American nature lovers will be clicking and swiping to attend online digital Earth Day events.
A revival of interest in this annual occasion was long overdue. The past five decades saw early policy successes fade gradually into an apathetic status quo. New regulations, passed in the 1970s up through the ’90s, had reduced sulfur dioxide pollution from coal power plants, cleaned up rivers, and greatly reduced the smog in big cities like Los Angeles. Pro-business commentators took this as evidence that the world’s environmental problems were essentially solved. But most pollution had just moved overseas to China and India, where so many of our products are now manufactured. On the whole, Earth is far more polluted today than it was in 1970. Indeed, so much plastic is accumulating in the oceans that, by 2050, it may outweigh all the fish.
During those same 50 years, populations of vertebrates (animals with backbones) declined by 60 percent on average. It’s been estimated that humans—along with our cattle, pigs, and other domesticates—now make up 96 percent of all terrestrial vertebrate biomass. The other four percent include all the songbirds, deer, foxes, elephants and on and on—all the world’s remaining wild land animals. We inherited a planet of astounding beauty, which we share with millions of amazing creatures—and, one by one, we’re crowding them out.
Meanwhile, climate change, the scariest environmental trend of all, has snowballed from a little-discussed theory to an impending global threat. In 1970, the average CO2 levels at Mauna Loa, where Charles Keeling was monitoring them, were 325 parts per million; last year they hit 419 ppm. The most recent decade was the warmest on record. Droughts, wildfires, and floods are becoming more frequent, severe, and costly. And, right up until the arrival of COVID19, carbon emissions were continuing to increase year by year.
In response, climate activism has mushroomed, and there have been more victories to celebrate—such as the divestment of many wealth funds from fossil fuel companies, and rapidly declining costs for renewable energy. Pipelines have been blocked by protesters and courts, and a global youth movement has coalesced to demand action from complacent governments.
But none of this was enough. Over all, the trends threatening future generations and millions of other species are worsening. While it was too much to hope that the semicentennial Earth Day could reverse those trends, it might have been an occasion for re-committing to action. But now, suddenly, we are in a different moment. The global economy is in freefall—not because of climate impacts, and not because we tried to redesign manufacturing and consumption to forestall those impacts; rather, it’s due to rapidly spreading sickness and death.
Pandemics have been with us since the earliest days of civilization, and until recently there was no obvious reason for most people to think they posed a risk similar in scale to climate change or crashing biodiversity. However, as Laurie Garrett and other public health experts have warned, population growth, urbanization, increasing global trade, rapid global travel, and wild animal markets on civilization’s fringes together provide ingredients for a pandemic on a scale perhaps unprecedented. If you’d asked an ecologist a decade ago which of all the dire environmental trends (including climate change, resource depletion, biodiversity loss, overpopulation, and pollution) would likely be the first to bring civilization to its knees, she probably wouldn’t have ranked pandemic near the top of the list. But here we are. As ecologist Carl Safina put it in a recent essay, “Humans caused [a] pandemic by putting the world’s animals into a cruel blender and drinking that smoothie.”
The coronavirus pandemic reminds us that we are vulnerable biological organisms, strands in Earth’s web of life. Due to our special human gifts—notably, our linguistic and tool-making abilities—we have come to think of ourselves as special and apart, more gods than critters. We have used our unique powers to kill off the macropredators that once threatened us—the lions, tigers, and bears. But a micro-predator, far too small to be seen even with a powerful optical microscope, has shown up unexpectedly to remind us that we are still links in the food chain. If something good is to come from the terrifying experience we are all sharing this fiftieth Earth Day, perhaps it will be the reminder that our survival depends not on defeating nature (something we can never really do, because we are nature), but instead on learning to live in a state of intelligent, dynamic balance within Earth’s nourishing yet fragile and perilous complexity.
It’s good to have a special day to remind ourselves of the exquisite blue planet that really should be foremost in our thoughts every day of the year. And it’s appropriate to celebrate what’s been accomplished to safeguard our shared home. But will there be an Earth Day 100? It’s looking just a little doubtful.
I really want to end on a hopeful note, so here goes. It doesn’t have to be this way. We’re perfectly capable of increasing our happiness without piling on more environmental harms. Tired old promises about green growth won’t get us there. What we need instead is a collective change of heart and mind that leads to fundamental shifts in institutions and norms, prioritizing well-being and life satisfaction over ever-more consumption—just as we’re prioritizing health over economic activity by quarantining ourselves during the pandemic. The fact that we’ve put off that shift for 50 years doesn’t mean we have to continue doing so. Maybe the pandemic, along with the resulting temporary shuttering of travel and commerce, is an opportunity to rethink and reboot both our individual lives and our collective ways of being on this precious planet. That would make this Earth Day a truly meaningful occasion.