Earth Day at 50, And A World In Crisis: What We Must Do Now

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, but missing are the large rallies, marches, cleanup days, educational fairs, and other gatherings that have annually celebrated the role we can each play in protecting the planet.  These moments to show our support for our common home are of course cancelled by COVID19, as are many ways we gather together as communities and families. 

We dearly miss these moments to join together, but in their place we find a moment to reflect on what role we can play right now in affecting a just response to, and recovery from, this crisis, and how doing so is intrinsically connected to the urgency of meeting our environmental challenges with solutions that benefit all.

The solutions to the COVID19 pandemic and the climate crisis will both require listening to science and and prioritizing those most at risk from both threats. This is a moment when each of us need to recognize how these crises are connected, and the role we must play in protecting each other from both dangers.

Coronavirus has further exposed inequalities in our society, and the fact that many of our neighbors are at greater risk than others. These communities that urgently need our help to get the safety and health care they deserve are also needing the most protection from polluted air and water.  

These inequities, and connections, were made crystal clear by the dust cloud that polluted Chicago’s Little Village on Easter weekend.  The community’s triumph in closing a coal plant that used to contaminate their lungs was marred when the old smokestack was imploded without sufficient notice or protection, filling the streets and many homes with dangerous dust in the midst of a respiratory health emergency. 

We can’t conquer coronavirus or climate change as long as some of us have more protection than others.  The future success of our efforts to solve environmental problems will depend on whether we include all communities in that struggle, embrace new voices and leaders, and be allies in addressing racial and economic injustice.  

Now is the time for all who care about the future of the planet to care about those hurting in the present.  Communities of color, immigrants, health care workers, and other essential employees in a union or fighting for one need the support of all of us more than ever to ensure they get protection and relief. They should be first in line for economic assistance and health care made available in response to the crisis. All of us who want to save the planet for the future need to show up for these communities right now, using our voices and our generosity.

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, our environmental movement has been all about protecting our communities. With COVID19 bearing down on all of us, particularly our most vulnerable, we are needed now more than ever. 

We’ve done this before, and we can do it again. Our Great Lakes, our rivers, and the air we breathe are much cleaner because we listened to science and demanded action. To win the fights against COVID19 and climate change, we need not only science but also justice to be our guiding lights.  We must stand with those most at risk from environmental injustice, against what threatens them now, be it a virus, racism, economic inequality, or any harm that keeps us all from achieving the healthy, prosperous future we all want for our children. If all who care for our planet also care for each other, we can look forward to a future Earth Day when we can celebrate a society and an economy that protects each and every one of us.

Jack Darin is the Director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter.