Wednesday is the 50th annual Earth Day, which has become the largest secular observance in the world. The Earth Day Network is the world’s largest, broadest environmental coalition, and its goals range from climate change mitigation and voter turnout to conservation and education efforts.
While Earth Day might seem to be an apolitical holiday, its historyis shaped by the political struggle to achieve a sustainable society. Underscoring the political nature of Earth Day, this year’s theme is climate action.
Earth Day was first conceptualized by peace activist John McConnell, who hoped that the day would be a way to honor the Earth and the concept of peace, and help human beings to make peace with the earth and one another. The Earth Day we celebrate today was inaugurated by Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson on April 22, 1970, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom for this work.
IU students participated in that first Earth Day along with 22 million other Americans. Most Earth Day activities in Indiana took place at schools, with most university activities organized by students. The activities ranged from teach-ins and lectures to cleanups and tree planting, and Nelson even spoke at the rally and teach-in at Dunn Meadow.
As the teach-ins and lectures showed, Earth Day largely centered around education on environmental issues, which is fitting given how much of today’s climate debate is centered on misinformation and propaganda. The importance of real, scientific knowledge about climate change and the environment cannot be overstated.
Climate denial work funded by the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel giants caused much of the climate skepticism and inaction we deal with today. About 30% of Americans believe that climate change is not real according to a survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and about 40% believe that it is not caused by human beings. Those rates of climate denial are higher among older Americans, who vote at higher rates than younger Americans.
Thanks to the financial and political power of the Koch empire, any Republicans who were willing to consider even modest climate action were strong-armed out of office, causing the partisan divide about scientific consensus that we deal with in our politics today.
Earth Day is important because it renews appreciation for the natural world and mobilizes support for climate action. Since its inception, the Earth Day Network has sought to clean up our air and water, fight disinformation and ignorance and advocate for common sense environmental regulations such as the Clean Air Act, which regulates emissions and reduces air pollution.
Normally, Earth Day is marked by global protests to show mass support for climate action and put pressure on governments to act, cleanups designed to make communities healthier and more aware of local environmental concerns and citizen science initiatives that seek to educate communities about the environment and climate change.
This year, with Earth Day falling amid a pandemic, that won’t be possible, but there are still ways to show your support for climate action while social distancing.
The Earth Day official website shows digital events happening all around the world, with events searchable by theme, location, language and time. Themes range from faith to activism. If you’re inspired by the inaugural teach-in of 1970 and would like to celebrate Earth Day in keeping with that tradition, teach-ins are one of the options in the thematic drop-down menu.
The website also allows you to make a donation, which helps the Earth Day Network continue to organize various climate groups into one cohesive movement.
If donating is not an option or you would like to do more, your time and your voice are just as valuable. You can call your representatives at the federal, state and local levels by searching here and asking them to support climate action. You can vote and advocate for candidates who care about climate change mitigation efforts. You can plan to participate in or organize cleanups after social distancing guidelines are lifted.
Climate change is a global and local issue, and Earth Day reminds us to take care of our corner of the earth while we advocate for broader changes. Earth Day organizers have assembled resources that allow us to take action and that help them to take action, even though we can’t gather as we would in normal times.
Kaitlyn Radde (she/her) is a sophomore studying political science. She plans to pursue a career in public interest law.