As I’m writing this, the world has suffered 1,506,936 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 90,000 deaths. Of those, the U.S. has 453,748 cases and just more than 16,000 deaths.
The global economy is reeling.
Congress swiftly passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus package. To put $2.2 trillion in context, that is more than three times as much money as national military spending.
Initially, President Donald Trump did not take COVID-19 seriously. On Jan. 22, he famously said, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China.” In subsequent weeks, he spoke at eight large rallies and went golfing six times.
He is taking it seriously now.
Understandably lost amid this death and tumult is the crushing impact COVID-19 has had on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Thousands of people around the world have worked for years to leverage a massive global Earth Day.
For two years, the Earth Day Network patiently laid the groundwork for gigantic crowds in 180 nations, from St. Peter’s Square to Kolkata, from Rio to Paris, from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to Seattle Center. We built alliances with Greta Thunberg, Jamie Margolin, Alexandria Villaseñor, Lili Flanigan and thousands of other youth-climate activists; with 350.org, the Sunrise Movement, and scores of national and international environmental groups. We obtained commitments from Pope Francis and other religious leaders, heads of state and mayors, green corporate leaders and labor chiefs. We allied with the Smithsonian to enlist many of the world’s leading museums. We engaged colleges, universities and tens of thousands of K-12 schools; zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens.
The goal was to build an irresistible worldwide force to demand a global Green New Deal and, ultimately, solve the climate crisis.
Then COVID-19, the ultimate Black Swan, surged out of China and engulfed the world. All our marches, rallies and protests; our teach-ins, lectures and concerts — everywhere — were made illegal.
A similar phenomenon occurred once before, right after the first Earth Day in 1970. For those who understand that humanity is stumbling toward catastrophe, and who believe that 2020 must mark a crucial inflection point for greenhouse gas emissions, that earlier episode shows how we still can win.
On April 29, 1970, one week after 20 million Americans had taken to the streets to demand a healthy, clean environment, President Richard Nixon escalated the war he had promised to end by invading Cambodia. The betrayed nation erupted. On May 4, at a protest demonstration at Kent State University, frightened National Guard troops fired live ammunition at unarmed college students, killing four and wounding nine.
America’s streets and campuses immediately were awash with anti-war protesters. The environment dropped from above-the-fold front page news into near-oblivion.
But that summer, Earth Day organizers launched a campaign against a “Dirty Dozen” members of Congress with terrible environmental records. With a minuscule budget but unbounded energy, and to the utter astonishment of the political establishment, we defeated seven of the 12 incumbents. The very first to fall was George Fallon, the powerful chair of the House Public Works Committee (the “pork” committee).
That November political triumph made clear to Congress that Earth Day had not been just a frolic in the park. One month after the 1970 election, the Clean Air Act of 1970 passed the Senate unanimously and the House with just one dissenting vote.
In short order, Congress also passed the:
• Clean Water Act
• Occupational Health and Safety Act
• Marine Mammal Protection Act
• Endangered Species Act
• Safe Drinking Water Act
• Set Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards for cars
• Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act
• Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
• Toxic Substances Control Act
• National Forest Management Act
In the 10 years following Earth Day, bold new laws changed the direction of the United States economy more profoundly than any other period in history, except perhaps the New Deal. And the New Deal was pushed by a wildly popular president whose party controlled both houses of Congress. The environmental revolution came from the grassroots up.
Additionally, President Nixon established the EPA, and its visionary first head, Bill Ruckelshaus, banned lead in gasoline, banned DDT and banned lead-based paint.
By successfully applying the skills and enthusiasm of Earth Day organizers to the 1970 election, we saved the environmental revolution that had been launched on April 22 of that year.
This April 22, we want everyone to stay in the safety of their homes. Spend some hours streaming talks and films and musicians (playing from their living rooms) at earthday.org. Check out opportunities for future engagement in King County at earthdaynw2020.org/.
But understand that the real challenge lies in the next six months. The 2020 U.S. election will be the most important of your lifetime. It can be an inflection point for the world.
The 2020 election will determine whether the great American experiment — universal suffrage, separation of powers, Bill of Rights, rule of law — will be resuscitated from the dark impact of the worst president in the nation’s history.
The 2020 election will determine whether the United States Senate will once again become the independent chamber of leaders envisioned by the founders, or whether it will drift into long-term status as a chamber of corrupt, inept sycophants.
The 2020 election will determine whether America will come again to cherish sound science, respect expertise, revere innovators and assume its leadership role in protecting the planet from climate devastation. Essentially, all climate scientists agree that we are approaching irreversible tipping points that threaten to permanently impoverish not just the human prospect but the entire web of life.
If you have never registered new voters, volunteer to do it now.
If you have never walked precincts for a candidate, volunteer to do it as soon as travel restrictions are lifted.
If you have never raised money for an inspirational candidate in a tight race, do it now.
If you have never participated in a get-out-the-vote drive, November 3 is the day you should prepare for. COVID-19 robbed us of Earth Day this year. So let’s make Election Day Earth Day.
On November 3, don’t vote for your pocketbook, or your political tribe, or your cultural biases.
This November 3, vote for the Earth.