The 50th Earth Day has eerie similarities to the first one that millions of citizens observed a half century ago. In 1970, the U.S. was divided over the Vietnam War, but growing concern over environmental degradation pushed an estimated 20 million Americans to demonstrate peacefully for reform. A week later, President Richard Nixon escalated the war with the invasion of Cambodia, and protests erupted across college campuses nationwide. Days later, a demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio ended in violence, with the shooting deaths of four unarmed students.
The momentum surrounding Earth Day at first appeared to fall back into the rearview mirror, but all was hardly lost. In the following years, the U.S. Congress passed a dozen major environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
Now, we face similarly dark days, and again we're confronting a tipping point. There’s no shortage of evidence suggesting the novel coronavirus pandemic, and future disease outbreaks, have and will continue to have links to climate change. Society in turn faces a host of challenges: the proliferation of single-use plastics, rethinking our approach to food waste, surging deforestation, and the lack of environmental justice within our most vulnerable communities.
Sure, we may feel some optimism from being able to see the mountains for once from our neighborhoods. We’ve also fawned over the photos of marine life returning to the canals of Venice. But the Earth’s climate risk trajectory hasn’t changed, and in any event, the current clean air and sights of wildlife roaming in our neighborhoods have come at the expense of economic collapse and human despair.
At some point, we’ll have to rebuild our economy, but we must find a way to do so while we strike a balance with nature. I’ll give you one reason: Of the top 150 prescription drugs in the U.S., about three-quarters of them are derived from plants. The bottom line is that if we want to stay healthy, the planet must be resilient, too.
"As we inch from a ‘war-time’ response to ‘building back better,’ we need to take on board the environmental signals and what they mean for our future and wellbeing,” wrote Inger Andersen, head of the U.N. Environment Program, “because COVID-19 is by no means a ‘silver lining’ for the environment.”
Here’s the reality: At some point, the curve will finally flatten, and we can take baby steps back toward the way of life we once knew. But we’ll need to work even harder to ensure our planet can sustain life far into the future.
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Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.