2020: An Opportunity for Reflection, by Charles Hua
When Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson established the first Earth Day in 1970, rivers were burning, insecticides were contaminating, and smog was spreading. In some ways, things have gotten better: our rivers no longer burn with debris, our fields no longer drown with DDT, and our skies no longer overwhelm with pollution.
But, in many ways, things have gotten much worse. The challenges we’re confronting are more existential. The deadlines we’re facing are more stringent. The actions we’re not taking are more consequential. Even before the COVID-19 virus unleashed its disruptive fury, global emissions were accelerating and climate negotiations were failing. Fossil fuels kept churning. Governments kept denying. Progress kept dwindling.
Perhaps this view is unfair; after all, there is much reason for hope. Indeed, few images of the late 2010s are more poignant than those of youth mobilizing in solidarity throughout all pockets of the world, uniting across schools and in streets in a call to action on the issue of climate change. Young people have significantly — if not substantially — shifted the conversation from abstract to tangible, re-orienting the timescale of climate change from an issue affecting the future to one affecting the now. The 2010s also marked, perhaps, the first decade in which the portfolio of technologies needed to address climate change finally became well-defined in viability. Alternative energy simply became energy. And ambition kept soaring, as major governments and corporations began pledging 100% renewable energy and net-zero emissions commitments. Even then, activists fought for more.
When I reflect on my personal journey with environmentalism, I often think back to the first Earth Day in 1970. Not because it represented the origin of the modern environmental movement (we have Rachel Carson and Silent Spring to thank for that), but because it represented an era of hope for a more progressive future. Even with the late 1960s marred by tension and conflict — the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Space Race — the nation, on April 22, 1970, appeared to coalesce around a mission to defend the environment and the planet’s natural resources. 20 million Americans gathered to celebrate.
And the victories kept coming. In 1970, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 1971, Congress restricted the use of lead-based paints. In 1972, the EPA banned DDT. In 1973, the EPA began phasing out leaded gasoline. In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. Before the decade was over, landmark environmental legislation had pushed the frontiers of what the broader environmental movement thought were attainable. And this momentum spawned an era of unprecedented international cooperation on environmental issues over the following decades, with the Montreal Protocol in 1987 and the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.
The bipartisan legacy that this “Golden Age” of environmentalism left behind in the wake of the restless years leading up to the first Earth Day and the collaborative years that followed was unprecedented. I often reflect upon the lessons of mobilizing, organizing, and advocating that one can take from the success of Nelson’s efforts in 1970. And it gives me hope that, despite the partisan gridlock that has plagued the 2010s, the 50th birthday of Earth Day can spawn an ensuing decade as progressive and enduring as did the first.
We have more knowledge, more resources, and more ambition than ever before. What will we do with it?
Few facets of our lives have yet to be upended by the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic, and its twisted irony, has forced upon us social distancing when social connection is most needed, exposed the most vulnerable populations to the most unsafe conditions, and hindered communication when collaboration has never before been more critical.
Yet, amidst this period of uncertainty and anxiety, one thing brings me hope: compassion for humanity. We can enter an era of renewed collaboration. We can align our incentive systems to prioritize our collective well-being. We can re-design our institutions to more effectively serve the people they intend to serve. One need look no further for proof than the very first Earth Day, exactly 50 years ago today.
I’m sitting in quarantine-induced reflection in my home state of Wisconsin, the same state that gave birth to the figure who helped inspire entire generations of people who believed in the value of fighting to protect our planet’s most precious resources. I’m hoping that the humanity that emerges out of this pandemic is a version more compassionate and thoughtful than the one that entered.
Perhaps no year would have been more symbolic for Earth Day to hold its 50th birthday than 2020. Because it beckons the question: what kind of vision do we want to leave for our future?