Wednesday’s 50th anniversary of Earth Day won’t be marked by widespread official rallies or demonstrations — such gatherings would be irresponsible during this global pandemic, even if they were allowed.
But in some ways, this unusual time offers a more meaningful way to mark the anniversary: a greater opportunity for introspection; a stronger appreciation for the power of collective action; a rare interruption of life-as-usual that brings routines and habits into sharp relief.
Last weekend’s protests of stay-at-home orders aside, this spring arguably marks the first time in generations that Americans have been so united in common purpose. Across the country, people have curtailed activities and made personal sacrifices to protect the health of neighbors and friends.
About 20 million Americans turned out for the first Earth Day in 1970, according to organizers. Their visibility helped raise awareness of environmental issues and development’s impact on human health.
Let this 50th anniversary mark an enduring shift toward a greater appreciation for the impact of human activity on the environment, environmental impacts on health and the cumulative burdens of inequality. Let us emerge with a stronger commitment to sustainability and resilience.
“In some ways, this period is an opportunity,” said Kristie Ebi, a University of Washington professor who studies global health, disease and climate change.
While extraordinary measures to fight COVID-19 have caused significant hardship and economic disruption, they also have helped stave off catastrophic rates of infection. We can step up to challenges, no matter how great. Washington state’s success in flattening the curve also demonstrates that a more sustainable, just and resilient society is possible, and that individual efforts can make great contributions toward those ends.
To give one small example, Ebi cites a 2011 New Zealand analysis that showed that eliminating just 5% of short car trips saved nearly 6 million gallons of fuel and 50,000 tons of CO2. It also saved millions in fuel bills and yielded significant health benefits for the population — slashing health-care costs and saving dozens of lives.
If Puget Sound residents aimed for a similar, small-scale reduction in car travel once social distancing rules are eventually relaxed, the cumulative result could be significant improvements in air quality, reduction in traffic and greater overall health.
There are countless other small changes that could yield great improvements in equity, sustainability and resilience. As individuals, organizations and civic leaders begin turning their attentions to mid- and long-term plans for resuming everyday activity, they should consider how small actions can lead to substantive change.