On Earth Day and Every Day, We’re All in this Together

Photo: The New York Daily News covers the first Earth Day, 1970

By Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director

The biggest Earth Day celebration I attended happened 30 years ago when I volunteered as an Earth Day ranger at one of the largest gatherings ever held in New York City in Central Park. It was a big deal, and we had high hopes. Some 750,000 people gathered that day to celebrate 20 years of Earth Day with an incredible, free musical lineup featuring The B-52s, Edie Brickell, and Daryl Hall and John Oates. I was a senior in high school, ready to launch into the world and tackle the most pressing local and global environmental issues, like Amazonian deforestation at the mercy of corporate America’s fast food desires. 

Central Park was pulsating to “Love Shack” and other upbeat tunes that beautiful, sunny day, but sadness hit me when the huge crowds departed and left behind thousands of pounds of garbage that I and other rangers cleaned up. This day was supposed to be a call to action and an awakening to celebrate and care for the planet. Instead, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth and raised all sorts of unanswered questions about how positive change could take root.  

In 1990, sustainable development was the buzzword of the day, but we struggled to find practical examples where modern industrial communities didn’t externalize costs and create products that harmed and polluted natural ecosystems and wildlife. Finding this balance seemed distant, particularly without the kind of technologies that have revolutionized the way we live, work, and play today. In those days, we were thinking about organic food, plastics, toxic and chemical contamination, and wilderness protections, to name a few leading concerns. Even though climate change and global warming weren’t officially part of our vocabulary, we were worried about ozone holes and CFCs in styrofoam and other products.

But we had not fully contemplated our fossil fuel addiction and how powerful interests would shape national and global policies and energy practices to delay alternative renewable energies over the next 30 years. Nor did we recognize that our work needed to fully embrace environmental justice in order to root out and dismantle structural racism, poverty, and societal inequities.

In the three decades since, success stories have given us hope with the healing of some rivers, lakes, estuaries, and wetlands, the revival of polluted Rust Belt cities, and the protection of ecologically critical habitats. But we also have witnessed the continued transformation of megacities and urban sprawl, biodiversity loss, the proliferation of global oil production and plastics, and the unprecedented growth of consumerism and cheap products. Our actions have had profound effects that ripple to every corner of the Earth.

The interconnectedness of human and natural ecosystems has never been more apparent. It’s the clarion call, the mantra, and the rallying cry of this global pandemic crisis: We’re all in this together. This virus does not discriminate, taking the lives of people from all socio-economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and yet, the death toll is disproportionately higher among African Americans and other people of color. In Michigan, for example, African Americans constitute just 14 percent of Michigan’s population, but account for 35 percent of the cases and 40 percent of the deaths attributable to COVID-19, to date. Healthy ecosystems depend on healthy, equitable communities, and access to water. Period. 

But we had not fully contemplated our fossil fuel addiction and how powerful interests would shape national and global policies and energy practices to delay alternative renewable energies over the next 30 years. Nor did we recognize that our work needed to fully embrace environmental justice in order to root out and dismantle structural racism, poverty, and societal inequities.

So as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day during these uncertain times, one thing is certain: protecting clean water is more important than ever before. This global pandemic has exposed the gross inequities of our society, including the unconscionable practice of denying people basic access to water for drinking, hand washing, cooking, bathing, and sanitation.

It is time for us to demand public water and public justice for all. Not just water for some. Without access to life’s most essential need — water —our society will falter and our future will falter. This work demands that frontline groups and policy organizations work side-by-side in our collective struggle for water justice. This organizing principle of empowerment guides our work at FLOW. It is a time for us to reimagine how we rebuild a just and equitable society where water is recognized and protected as a human right, where our economy respects human and natural capital, and where we no longer take each other and this small blue planet for granted.

2 comments on “On Earth Day and Every Day, We’re All in this Together

  1. Barbara Stamiris on

    There has never been a more critical time to realize the inseparable connection between social and environmental justice! Thank you Liz for your timely and eloquent reminder.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *