What a bittersweet Earth Day. As the day of protest turns 50, humankind has retreated indoors and nature is cautiously advancing into territory we claimed for Progress. You can see the mountains again from Los Angeles. You can see fish in the canals of Venice. Goats munch garden hedges in Llandudno as they venture into the empty streets.
On the first Earth Day I was in high school in a conservative southern city, but I was fortunate to have some stellar teachers who were always trying out new ways to make learning engaging and (a big word in 1970) “relevant.” They weren’t as hobbled by punitive testing regimes and administrative demands as teachers are today. Perhaps sensing we were experiencing a historical moment, my American history teacher invited us to figure out a way to participate in the protest movement. We made a papier-mâché earth and paraded it around the school in a coffin before holding a mock funeral. I don’t recall it being partisan or overtly political. If there was major political opposition to environmentalism (and I’m sure there was) it hadn’t yet been handed down to children as a matter of faith and social identity. Though many students were vocally skeptical of evolution because of their religious beliefs, being skeptical of science wasn’t a party dividing line.
Today in Washington, the war on sanity continues as regulations are systematically vandalized while the pandemic provides cover. We’ve experienced floods, fires, and powerful hurricanes in recent months; three F4 tornadoes sweeping the southern United States in a single week remind us that damage we’ve done to the climate will change life on earth profoundly.
Yes, wolves have returned to the exclusion zone around the ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear plant and forests have grown up through the abandoned buildings, but wildfires now release the radiation originally released in 1986 and since has been absorbed into living things. Seeing signs of resilience is a balm, but must be accompanied by a social and political commitment to changing our ways.
There is no “going back to normal.” We’ve already made sure of that.