Earth Day’s 50th anniversary arrived this year in the midst of troubled times. The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed how people celebrated Earth Day in 2020. Instead of taking to the streets to advocate for environmental and climate action or spending the day outside, people organized virtual celebrations and strikes. The original Earth Day was born during times as troubled as our own, and in many ways led to a new revolution in activism, so we’re reflecting on Earth Day’s 50-year history, as well as the larger climate movement’s wins and misses to build a road map for a post-COVID environmental movement rooted in equity and social justice.
Earth Day emerged from a national sense of crisis. In years preceding it, the federal government failed to pass even the most basic protections for water, air, and soil. President Richard Nixon encapsulated the mood of Republican party leaders at the time: “In a flat choice between smoke and jobs, we’re for jobs,” Nixon once told his top domestic adviser John Ehrlichman. Yet during this time, activists were also raising awareness about Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), an insecticide and human carcinogen; polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), a dangerous chlorine compound used in household products; radioactive waste; and other environmental hazards. These issues caused public outrage in response to disasters such as the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and the Cuyahoga River Fire in Cleveland, Ohio. This confluence of events unleashed a wave of change.
In 1970, organizers harnessed public concern through protests and environmental teach-ins, using strategies learned fighting for civil rights and organizing antiwar strikes. Their grassroots efforts recruited more than 20 million people, reaching well beyond the borders of the United States. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who were calling about it, and how diverse the calls, and how diverse the communities,” Arturo Sandoval, an early advocate for Chicano rights and an Earth Day organizer, told the Trust for Public Land. Environmental issues were at the forefront of a national conversation, and protests were being organized by school children and mayors, mothers and college students.
Environmental leaders used this incredible showing of support to press lawmakers for real and permanent changes. That same year, Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a bipartisan congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Nongovernmental organizations and other community organizations that formed in the immediate aftermath of Earth Day became powerful players in ongoing environmental activism. In the unsettled era of Agent Orange and nuclear proliferation, Earth Day seemed to provide a blueprint for building a better future.
Earth Day Today
The COVID-19 pandemic has spread hardship and uncertainty across the United States, but it has also highlighted the environmental emergency we face. Despite the environmental victories of the 1970s, the benefits of cleaner air and water have not been enjoyed by all Americans. Many Native American communities still lack consistent access to clean water and some reservations may not even have access to running water. Hazardous waste, industrial factories, power plants, and major highways frequently tend to be located closer to marginalized communities that lack the political or economic power to protest their placement or to relocate. These inequalities, among other systemic and structural disparities, expose many minoritized groups to higher rates of illness, chronic disease, and early death. Though we’ve celebrated 50 Earth Days and there has been rising public awareness of environmental pollutants and impacts, marginalized communities continue to bear the burden of systemic environmental injustice.
These inequalities were not created by COVID-19, but the pandemic has made them even more visible and urgent. Chronic exposure to air pollution has been tentatively linked to higher COVID-19 mortality rates. Across the United States, counties with large African American populations experience disproportionately more coronavirus diagnoses and deaths. Communities of color, including New York’s Latinx populations are also on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, working essential jobs with little physical protection from COVID exposure, with less ability to work from home, living in higher housing densities, and with less reliable access to healthcare. Native communities that are already experiencing delays to promised emergency support and health services must also struggle with aging infrastructure and polluted water. As Stacy Bohlen, CEO of the National Indian Health Board told Politico, “This is not the place you want to skimp on resources if you want to hold the tide on this disease.”
COVID-19 is a threat multiplier that has raised the stakes for lower-income families and communities of color, but the fundamental problems themselves are not new. They reflect broader societal norms of unequal access to essential resources, from clean air and water to nutritious food and healthcare. The current impacts of COVID-19 are also a glimpse of a possible future where the looming climate crisis places new strains on communities made vulnerable, all while exacerbating existing inequities. As the goalposts shift, it’s worth asking ourselves: Are all communities better off today? If we cannot answer in the affirmative, we have much to answer for moving forward.
Creating a Road Map to Earth Day 2070
Today we face economic uncertainty, deep inequality, a rise in nationalism and extremism, state violence, climate change, and setbacks in environmental regulation. Organizers of the first Earth Day lived through similarly challenging times and worked with the mood of the time, offering a vision for a different future in a time of uncertainty. As dire as this era feels, collective action in this critical moment can set the stage for a truly inclusive environmental movement that builds equity and justice into the very foundation of its activism.
Earth Day’s original goal was to put environmental issues on the national agenda and in many ways the organizers achieved that goal. Today, the challenges we face are immense, so the goals must be more expansive, more ambitious, and more inclusive. Our Earth Day 2070 vision is to create a society where everyone has housing and healthcare, can breathe clean air and drink clean water, has meaningful and well-compensated work, and is safe in outdoor spaces. Bringing this vision to fruition means rooting all environment and climate work in equity and justice. Here’s how.
Each of us must redouble efforts to build a truly inclusive and cohesive environmental movement that centers the needs of the most impacted communities so that the same past failures are not repeated.
Building an inclusive future means recognizing and acknowledging the mainstream environmental movement’s problematic past. The early environmental movement was largely built by wealthy white men—many early organizations viewed conservation as an aristocratic endeavor and didn’t accept nonwhite members until the ’70s. The lack of representation continues today: Dr. Dorceta Taylor, an environmental sociology professor at the University of Michigan, published a report in 2018 that found that fewer than 20 percent of U.S. environmental organization boards and staff are people of color. The modern environmental movement must acknowledge the consequences of historical segregation in order to create spaces that center the experiences and perspectives of people of color and younger activists. It is up to us to demand that environmental leaders, board members, donors, staff, and volunteers represent and reflect the communities they work in. Organizations can begin by stepping up and advocating beyond environmental justice to social justice.
Build Inclusive Movements
Women, Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color have long been in the fight for environmental and climate justice, effectively organizing around these issues. In the 1900s, Native Americans were fighting against uranium mining and nuclear fallout in their communities. Today, with the ability to harness online platforms to fuel large-scale grassroots activism, Native Americans are organizing for the earth all over Indian Country. From efforts such as Indigenous food sovereignty movement to the No Dakota Access Pipeline, Indigenous peoples are coming together to share their voices. Nonetheless, this long-standing activism by Native groups and other communities of color is often overlooked or unrecognized by mainstream environmental organizations. Moving forward, environmentalists must root efforts in the principles of environmental justice, placing the concerns and needs of frontline communities at the center of the work. This includes recognizing and learning from the leadership of organizations that have done critical environmental work, especially by and for marginalized communities, such as Climate Justice Alliance, Front and Centered, and the Indigenous Environmental Network. These groups, among many others, are leading the way in local and national action.
Connect Across Issues
Many of the first Earth Day organizers were veterans of social justice and civil rights advocacy who saw environmentalism as a logical extension of social protest and responsibility. Today’s long-term climate and environmental objectives shouldn’t be considered in isolation from social injustices: Environmental justice is climate justice, and both are inseparable from the right to healthcare and the right to do meaningful work. Addressing these injustices together, with policies such as a Green New Deal that connects economic and climate issues, is the only way to ensure we don’t collectively continue to repeat the same mistakes at the cost of those made most vulnerable. As the environmental movement charts a new path, it needs a swift change in leadership, ensuring new voices at the table—and it needs to learn from organizations like Zero Hour, South Bronx Unite, Knights and Orchids Society, and Climate Interactive, which are already connecting across issues.
Build Broader Coalitions
Earth Day 1970 fueled a widespread grassroots movement built on a broad coalition that set expectations about what needed to change and held politicians accountable for those changes. Today, the environmental movement needs to build bigger and broader coalitions that are diverse and well-organized with a political voice. These coalitions can push politicians to develop and pass stronger and more equitable policies that connect across issues. Individuals can use their voting power to bring environmental causes to the attention of elected representatives. Many primary elections are uncontested—providing opportunities to remind elected officials whose voices they are accountable to. In the same vein, a more diverse political leadership can be built by running and supporting candidates who build environmental justice into their agenda.
Expanding and protecting voting rights, especially for disenfranchised communities, also needs to be part of the environmental agenda. Individuals can press politicians to redress the impacts of voter suppression policies, including gerrymandering, registration restrictions, and voter ID laws. Voting rights will become even more important during the COVID-19 crisis, as states have taken advantage of stay-at-home orders to suppress voting, reducing the number of polling stations and refusing to extend vote-by-mail. Voting amplifies activist voices, and a successful environmental movement needs to ensure that the right to vote is available to everyone.
Fifty years after the first Earth Day, environmentalists must answer a modern call to action. In doing so, each of us must redouble efforts to build a truly inclusive and cohesive environmental movement that centers the needs of the most impacted communities so that the same past failures are not repeated. As the United States restarts the economy and people get back to their lives, let’s collectively build an environmental movement in which justice and inclusion are treated as the new normal. And most important, show up ready to work, because the environmental movement needs everybody.