The intersection of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary with the COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted some important truths that need to be addressed in order to combat climate change and protect the planet. As the principal organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970, I wanted to highlight four of them:
1. Global threats demand global solutions
The “pan” in pandemic is a Greek prefix meaning “all,” “everywhere.” Airborne coronavirus does not recognize borders, and such zoonotic diseases can leap between species. Similarly, global warming, by definition, permeates everywhere. And World Wildlife Fund’s most recent Living Planet Report attributes the terrifying 68 percent decline in wild animal populations over the last half-century to worldwide environmental destruction.
“America First” is a meaningless term regarding planetary phenomena.
The outbreak of a novel virus in China can spurt around the world before we can even sequence its genome, much less produce and globally distribute a vaccine.
Whether a ton of coal is burned in Ohio, China, or Russia is of no interest or importance to the planet. The earth’s atmosphere and oceans are giant mixing bowls.
The pandemic, the climate crisis, and the epidemic of extinction all can be traced to the production of greenhouse gases, to rampant deforestation, and unsustainable agriculture. We have the technology to fix all these problems, but we won’t unless all nations place a high value on a stable climate, a healthy population, and ecological diversity.
2. The concept of “essential workers” has to be expanded
Lockdown orders produced a new phrase: essential workers. These are the people who deliver medical care, fight fires, ensure public safety, produce and transport food, and more. Humans want to have art, entertainment, and recreation. We must have food, water, and medicine.
So, society provides the highest levels of protection to those who are deemed essential.
Nature, too, has its essential workers. All the energy that powers nature comes from the sun. But animals cannot photosynthesize sunlight. Sunlight-capturing plants are essential to the ecosystem.
More than 80 percent of the world’s flowering plants reproduce—produce their seeds and nuts and fruits—with the assistance of pollinators. Bees are well-known as pollinators, but others include butterflies, birds, bats, beetles, ants, and many other critters . . . some as large as lemurs. All are nature’s essential workers.
Many pollinators have been decimated through our negligence or indifference. But these essential workers deserve the highest level of protection. As a small step in that direction, many cities are now creating “pollinator pathways” through the urban tangle—pesticide-free plantings that allow pollinators to survive and perform their indispensable services.
3. To flourish in the future, we must reckon with the past
In recent months, the Black Lives Matter movement has led all of us, from corporate titans to police officers, from professional athletes to environmental activists, to reexamine our heritage with clear-eyed honesty. It can be painful.
I applaud the Sierra Club for its public acknowledgment that its iconic founder, John Muir, made racist comments in his early years, disparaging Indigenous people and African Americans. Other groups, including zoos and botanical gardens, are reexamining their histories. Unless we honestly confront where we have been, we will not be able to carve a clear path to where we are going.
In my field, these realities include the following:
• Climate change, just like the pandemic, has disproportionately harmed the poor of this country and the destitute of the world
• Environmental well-being must be rooted in environmental justice
• Environmental degradation is a shared threat, and progress will be a shared benefit
4. Modern communications—and an understanding of how different generations communicate—make it possible for the world to understand how the fates of humans, animals, and plants are all inextricably woven together.
Most of the communications of the Boomers who organized the first Earth Day relied on the U.S. Postal Service. We had some posters and we made some television appearances, but 98 percent of our communication utilized the written word.
Display at Museum of History and Industry, Seattle
However, Generations X, Y & Z live in a different world, a world of TikTok, Instagram, Twitch, and YouTube. They are moved principally by images. Images have provided powerful vehicles to call attention to social injustice and the manifestations of the climate crisis.
To tap into the tremendous impact of imagery on this audience, a new campaign was kicked off during “Climate Week.” It features large-format digital billboards donated by out of home advertising companies and focuses on breathtaking photos that showcase the “essential workers” of nature. For example, terrestrial forests and marine plants pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, dampening climate change and providing food and habitat for myriad life forms. They are just two of the “essential workers” that will be celebrated nationwide on donated outdoor media platforms.
Let me reiterate: global threats demand global solutions.
These compelling images will help create an emotional context to create universal support for protecting our planet—and in the process reduce the threats of climate change, of zoonotic pandemics, and provide food and habitat for diverse wildlife.
It is an important initiative, but it is only setting the stage for a global, multi-generational call-to-action.
Getting all of the generations together and on the same page about the environment is crucial — whether that’s through imagery or social media or even messenger pigeons. We need to see our problems clearly and collectively if we are going to face them head on. It is only once we all understand and accept the essential truths at play, that the essential work can be done.