April 22 is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day as we find ourselves amidst a global health emergency that demands we respond in a global, unified way.
Those of us who have never experienced an active war zone in our lifetime have never known a time such as this, where we have watched the gears of the world we formerly knew grind to a halt. It has affected us all in different ways. It is a time of uncertainty, stress and fear.
Yet, the birds keep returning with their spring migration. Spring wildflowers are emerging. There is solace and perspective to be found in the natural world around us. Hope is a really powerful force, and the rhythms of nature feel familiar and comforting.
People also are resilient and are finding new ways to carry on. It brings me hope to see how people are coming together, even if not physically. For someone who is not on the frontline of the battle, I have been asked to stay home as my main contribution to the cause.
I realize that not everyone has the option to stay home right now, and I am grateful to those people who are keeping our society going. In this time, I have felt drawn, as many of you have, to the small things we can do to support one another. In my professional life working for the Field Museum, that means working with a team to develop and share resources to get to know nature close to home.
In my personal life, that means supporting neighbors and teaching my children about how empowering it is to grow food and learn the names of the plants and animals we see in our backyard.
In the face of the unknown, one of the things that seems to make the most sense to me during this time is to plant our version of a Victory Garden and to start enough seeds to share with others. It doesn’t feel like much, but it’s what I can do right now.
Even with everything going on, Earth Day feels just as important and powerful today as it did in 1970 when Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin at the time, founded it. The idea was to create a national day to focus on the environment after Nelson witnessed the ravages of an oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., the year before.
We have seen how environmental issues affect us all. But, we have also seen how climate change and now COVID-19 disproportionately affect communities of color, where the legacy of environmental injustice has wreaked havoc on health for generations. These “frontline” communities, including those here in Chicago, have shouldered the toxic burden of factories, industrial waste, and poor air and water quality, and they have endured food deserts with a lack of access to fresh food.
Although at first glance Earth Day may in some ways seem quieter or less essential this year, we’ve seen how the current emergency has exposed the cracks in our systems. It amplifies our systemic inequities and the need to think in bold, new ways about how we truly are part of a global community.
Community is what will help us through.
Just like with this health crisis, climate change can feel overwhelming and as if it’s hard to know what one person can do to make a difference. For now, I will be doing my small part.
I’ll be spending Earth Day celebrating remotely with environmentalists and community change-makers, listening to ways to lift up and respond to their needs and thinking about policies to support for broader impact. And, I’ll be going for a walk with my family, carefully picking up trash along the way and reflecting on the day when we are on the other side of this COVID-19 challenge.
A feeling of solidarity exists in knowing that others will be doing the same on Earth Day. I’ll be envisioning that, in the years to come, we’ll pull together in the same way that we are doing now to rise up collectively to meet the challenges of the climate crisis.
Having lived through COVID-19, how will we think about and respond to the threat that climate change poses to our way of life and our co-existence on our planet?
I’ll be imagining a revolution and new way of living together that centers its focus on equity and the earth that sustains us.
Happy Earth Day.
(For ways to take action and celebrate Earth Day along with other Chicagoans (safely from home), visit www.chicommunityclimate.org/earthday50)