Right now, you're likely hearing a lot of “imagine ifs” about the COVID-19 pandemic, and what we could have done differently at key junctures.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, leading me to other “imagine ifs” of how our environmental movement might also have done things differently.
People organized the first Earth Day in response to the horrors of rivers set ablaze and communities choked by air pollution. The first organizers, many of them students, learned from the methods of the powerful civil rights movement.
They rooted the message of the first Earth Day in the basics of democracy: hold elected leaders accountable, encourage more folks to vote, and change laws or pass new ones to protect and improve the natural environment. These initial movement-building actions led to critical new laws to address pollution, including the federal Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
But over time, the achievements of this movement have not all been simple successes. While continuing to grow, our mainstream white-led environmental movement has largely dismissed and failed to acknowledge the immediate needs, historical contributions, and continued leadership of frontline communities and communities of color who have been most impacted by pollution. We have been mostly focused on our own priorities, not recognizing that incorporating and prioritizing social justice, is not only addressing and solving the climate crisis, but critical to achieving a just, sustainable, and equitable future.
Imagine if we all told that part of our story more often? Imagine if fifty years ago, and ever since, the environmental movement had aligned with social and environmental justice groups to prioritize social justice? Imagine if our movement focused on people and communities most impacted (and not just polar bears) as the reason why we should act now for a better future? Imagine if our movement more quickly recognized that communities impacted by redlining, forced urban renewal, and freeway construction would be the same ones now bearing significantly more impacts from air pollution, and people living in cancer alleys would be experiencing higher death rates in this pandemic?
So this Earth Day, let’s flip the script and start imagining WHEN. Imagine when we prioritize frontline communities and seek living-wages for workers. Imagine when the historically white-led environmental movement shares its power and prioritizes community approaches to create a clean and equitable future. Imagine when we connect “greenwashing” and “whitewashing.” Imagine when we recognize that Election Day can be our most powerful Earth Day, and we keep working together to ensure everyone has access to their right to vote.
During this challenging time, there is good news: that “when” is right now. We can look back and reclaim the roots of Earth Day. Just as before, we are experiencing social unrest, this time with widening health and social disparities, suppression of voters' voices, along with increased worsening of the climate crisis -- all amidst the immediacy of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s a lot to take in.
Below are five things you can do to re-establish Earth Day roots to further a better future for all. If you do, please feel free to go further, we’ll go farther together. While there are no longer rivers on fire, our collective house is on fire and we must remember who is inside.