This Earth Day was supposed to be different.
Over the years, April 22 has become known for toothless, symbolic activities: plant a tree, buy another reusable drinking vessel. It can be difficult to remember that, 50 years ago, after the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and the country’s biggest oil spill covered the coast of Santa Barbara, California, both Republicans and Democrats were galvanized into real political action.
On the first Earth Day, in 1970, 20 million people—10 percent of the American population at the time—flooded the streets demanding change. Two-thirds of our congressmen spoke at Earth Day events. President Richard Nixon had just signed the National Environmental Policy Act, requiring that new development projects study potential environmental impacts. “Political momentum was inevitable,” says advocate Denis Hayes, who helped organize the first Earth Day. Throughout the seventies, environmental legislation continued to roll through Congress: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Superfund program.
Earth Day lost its political power over time, but before COVID-19 changed everything—especially social gatherings—activists hoped to use the 50th anniversary to change that. Organizers geared up for a global protest to match the scale of the first Earth Day: people flooding the streets, demanding regulation, protection, and meaningful carbon-reduction goals.
“The aspiration was an international gathering of big, big crowds,” Hayes says. “Pope Francis committed to St. Peter’s Square. We had soccer stadiums booked in South America and 750,000 people on the mall in D.C. [We wanted] a billion people saying, ‘It’s time for bold action, we can’t just fiddle.’”
Luckily, if you care about being outside, you can still participate in a meaningful Earth Day from inside. We may not be able to physically come together to demonstrate right now, but environmental momentum is still critically important. We can take action by building coalitions, lobbying elected officials, and voting.
To kick off the momentum, the Earth Day Network, which was organizing those billion-people protests, is hosting a 24-hour virtual event, Earth Day Live, in conjunction with other climate groups. The first Earth Day was a catalyst for long-term change because it reinforced solidarity and galvanized the public. In our modern, digital era, we can try to recreate that experience in a virtual setting.
That success was built over years or decades, not in a single day, and it required legislative action. The same is true now. On May 4, Congress is slated to go back into session, where it will consider policies including more stimulus funding and the EPA’s air-quality standards. Now is a good time to look up your representatives, check which policies they support, and contact them to ask that they support environmental regulations when the next legislative session begins.
Two-thirds of U.S. voters believe the government isn’t doing enough to address climate change, but there haven’t been sweeping legislative wins for environmentalism in decades. If we want that to change, we have to put more pressure on politicians who are stalling action. Hayes notes that one of the biggest wins from the first Earth Day was that the public voted 20 pollution-friendly congressmen out of office in the next election cycle. In the lead-up to our November election, Hayes says that environmental activists’ first order of business should be widespread voter registration. That way we can target politicians with bad environmental records who are up for reelection—including the president.
As the Trump White House denies climate change and loosens regulations on everything from carbon emissions to mercury pollution, the EPA’s website encourages people to celebrate Earth Day by “sharing window art.” (With all due respect, hell no.) The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have to drastically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by the end of this decade, but current regulations—mostly controlled by agencies within Trump’s executive branch—achieve the opposite effect. Just last week, Trump’s EPA relaxed standards on air pollutants like toxic mercury for the coal industry. Climate change is on the rise, and its effects are immediate: in some parts of the United States, people could face massive floods on a daily basis, while other parts of the country are coming into fire season, and emergency supplies and funding are spread thin due to the pandemic.
The first Earth Day happened on the back of the civil rights and anti-war movements, when protesting and political organizing was a powerful force and marchers came out in force to disrupt the political status quo. Organizing crowds of people to march now is currently impossible, but it’s still crucial to channel that civic power.
As Hayes points out, even in 1970, the environment wasn’t the only thing making news. “A week after the first Earth Day, Nixon started bombing Cambodia, and the next week, the National Guard shot people at Kent State,” he says. “We had been front page, top of the fold, we got knocked off, but then it came back around.” Environmental activists had to stay mobilized and maintain pressure on elected officials. They did, and their grassroots movement eventually gained traction in Congress.
Back then the biggest known threat to the planet was rampant chemical pollution. After the Clean Air Act was passed, aggregate air pollution dropped 70 percent. The current administration is trying to roll back those hard-won gains to benefit industries instead of public health; for example, it recently changed a coal-plant-emission rule to have substantially fewer protections. Now, in addition to trying to uphold those important, long-standing regulations, we’re facing climate change, which wasn’t written about until the late 1980s and did not enter broader public discourse until later still.
Today we know more about what the planet is facing—we are well aware that the stakes are incredibly high and, metaphorically speaking, the river is still on fire. We need to work locally and nationally to cut carbon and increase environmental regulations. We need to elect people who support the Paris climate accord and other international climate cooperation.
Just like it was five decades ago, Earth Day can be a starting point for that.