Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
For anyone skeptical of the adage attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead, we might point to a 54-year-old war veteran in Wisconsin whose thoughtful engagement led him all the way to creating the first Earth Day.
Today, Earth Day is celebrated annually on April 22 by more than a billion people in nearly 200 countries, making it the largest secular observance in the world. But 50 years ago, a Midwestern member of the U.S. congress named Gaylord Nelson led, if not an entirely solo charge, then a thoughtful small-group movement to establish a day of action for the environment.
Just as today, the original Earth Day was born from an upwelling of local support that aimed to quash the flames of some very real environmental fires. In 1970, even water would fail to put out the flames. The summer before the first Earth Day, billows of putrid smoke blackened the afternoon sky above neighborhoods just southeast of downtown Cleveland, Ohio. The Cuyahoga River was on fire. A passing train had issued a spark that ignited the river’s surface, which was slick with oil. At first, residents marveled at how the body of water caught flame. Then, they grew angry.
The incensed voices from the citizens of Cleveland were quickly joined by many more. The American public, still reeling from an oil spill along the Santa Barbara, California, coast months before and fearful of Rachel Carson’s dire warning for a pesticide-induced Silent Spring, were fed up with environmental degradation. Their health and safety were at risk — and they were prepared to get political about it.
Senator Nelson channeled the people’s passion into a constructive political dialogue about health and conservation. He recruited bipartisan support to organize teach-ins on college campuses. 10,000 schools, 2,000 colleges and universities, and several thousand communities — in all, more than 20 million Americans — took part in the largest grassroots effort the country had seen.
The rest is history — but one we are writing together.
ICLEI Members Innovate for Earth Day
Like many ICLEI member communities, for the past several years, City of Moscow, Idaho, has celebrated an entire month of programming for Earth Month. This year, the City has shifted to an all-digital Earth Month celebration.
Every weekday during April, the City shared a Facebook message that included at-home activities for children to do with their parents. “Each week followed a theme: climate, water, energy, and food,” says Kelli Cooper, Sustainability Technician with Moscow. Activities are focused on getting people to think about the environment or take steps to reduce their own impacts. “For [the day of] Earth Day, our post will focus on activities that people can do for the environment while still practicing social distancing,” said Cooper.
Keeping social media inventive, the City of Kirkland, Washington, is calling BINGO! “The City’s environmental teams have picked out 24 things that you can do to help the Earth during April while staying home or socially distant in your neighborhood or a local park,” says David Barnes, Senior Planner for the City. Cities can easily adapt the Earth Month Bingo game for their community.
City leadership are also showing their support for action virtually this year. In recognition of Earth Day, Valerie Plante, Mayor of Montreal and ICLEI’s Local Ambassador for Global Biodiversity will speak on the importance of urban resilience at the EarthX – National Geographic Virtual Resilient Cities Conference.
City of Oberlin, Ohio, has partnered with Oberlin College to carry forth a community celebration online. A tree-planting event will carry on as planned, to honor a community hero who recently passed away. “It seems like a small thing,” says Linda Arbogast, Sustainability Coordinator for City of Oberlin, “but in fact, it is important that we show that the City has not given up its commitment to our Tree City status.”
With respect to social distancing, some communities are taking Earth Day outdoors. City of Princeton, New Jersey, will hold its Plants of Princeton Scavenger Hunt, which has identified more than 150 plant species in the area in past years. All residents need to do is download the iNaturalist app and sign up for the “Insects and Spider of New Jersey” project.
“For this hunt, we will focus on identifying butterflies, beetles, and bugs in our region,” explains Christine Symington, Program Director for Sustainable Princeton. “We suspect you can find dozens in your yard, but otherwise, venture into our local open spaces, ensuring you are maintaining social distance.” County and state parks are now closed, but paths are currently still open in Princeton’s municipal parks for walks and bug hunting.
Seoul Metropolitan Government is celebrating Earth Day by reaching out to their citizens as well as local environment and sustainability leaders around the world to collect pledges, inspire action, and raise awareness of the climate emergency through the media and online.
One Front Range Colorado town is asking its residents to shed some pounds—of carbon. City of Fort Collins, Colorado, is asking its residents to go on a carbon weight loss diet through a partnership partnered with the engagement platform SHIFT, which offers a site to record community actions. “[We] are challenging our community to lose 5,000 pounds of CO2e, the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, per household by Earth Day 2020,” explains Molly Saylor, Environmental Planner with Fort Collins.
An hour down the road in City of Lakewood, Colorado, an all-day livestreaming Earth Day will bring live music, workshops, and even a birds of prey show. Jeff Wong, Sustainability Planner for the City explains how they pulled off an ambitious event: “Lakewood’s Earth Day event is one of the biggest gatherings each year in our city. Once it became clear that an in-person event was not in the interest of public safety, a virtual event seemed like the logical next step for us. Our team quickly shifted gears so we could still make the event accessible and continue to increase awareness of environmental issues while celebrating the great work that’s happening within our community, all at a safe distance.”
Earth Day is Global
In partnership with the Earth Day Network, Ashok Sridharan, Mayor of Bonn and President of ICLEI is also marking the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day by calling for action. “This moment marks a critical turning point,” he said. “Local and regional governments are key players in driving the transition to a sustainable world.”
Earth Day also kicks off the Beethoven Pastoral Project that invites artists from all around the world to make a cultural statement for environmental protection. Amid the global crisis, artists are also joining movements online to bring the pastoral to life.
Cities and citizens around the world will engage in Earth Day Live, organized by Earth Day Network, for the first time Earth Day goes all-digital, with a star-studded lineup of advocates for the planet showing our political leaders that we have two crises to overcome: the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate emergency.